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From the Fifth Villancico
By Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Translated by Alan S. Trueblood
 
In alternating voices, written for the Feast of the Nativity in Puebla, 1689.
 
Because my Lord was born to suffer,
let Him stay awake.
 
 Because for me He is awake,
 let Him fall asleep.
 
Let Him stay awake there
is no pain for one who loves
as painlessness would be.
 
 Let Him sleep—
 For one who sleeps, in dreaming,
 prepares himself to die.
 
Silence, now He sleeps!
 Careful, He's awake!
Do not disturb Him, no!
 Yes, He must be waked!
Let Him wake and wake!
 Let Him have his sleep!

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was born on November 12, 1648, not far from Mexico City. She was the illegitimate daughter of two wealthy, well-connected Spanish colonial families, and grew up in a large hacienda filled with extended family. She was extraordinary from childhood. Reading by three, at age six she wanted to disguise herself as a boy in order to attend university! Her grandfather allowed her free use of his library, and Juana read voraciously in literature, math, and the sciences, and taught herself Latin and Nahuatl, an indigenous Aztec language. As a young woman, she served at the court of the Vicerine—wife of the King’s representative in Mexico—where her wit and brilliance was noticed. She did not enjoy court life, nor did she want to marry. After four years, she traded the court for the convent. In 1669, when she was 21, she entered the Convent of San Jeronimo in Mexico City. There she immersed herself in the religious life—and in the intellectual life. It is said that her rooms were filled with musical and scientific instruments, books, and works of art. She wrote poetry and plays, some of which were for use in the convent.
 
The poem Lisa read is one of several villancicos Sor Juana wrote. Villancico means “folk song” or “Christmas carol.” Typical of the genre, the poem has a musical quality (villancicos were often sung to old folk tunes). This poem is also dramatic: as the subtitle indicates, it was written for “alternating voices,” for the celebration of Christmas in Puebla in 1689.
 
This poem is actually just a small part of a much longer villancico. Two people—we can imagine shepherds, or perhaps nuns!—are looking at the baby Jesus. One tells him to wake, while the other tells him to sleep.
 
The first speaker says, “because my Lord was born to suffer, let Him stay awake.” The greatest pain for one who loves, this speaker insists, is to be without pain. The lover is eager to suffer for the beloved. Christ is eager to suffer for us. The second speaker wants Jesus to sleep, and not to wake and suffer—at least, not yet. “Because for me He is awake, / let Him fall asleep.” And yet, sleep is an image of death; in dreaming, Jesus “prepares himself to die.”
 
The poem ends with a charming contest between the two speakers – wake him—don’t wake him! Let him sleep! Let him wake! Ultimately, both speakers are thinking the same thing. Gazing on the child in the manger, they recognize his destiny: he is “born to suffer.” One longs for the redemption Christ brings; the other does, too, but wants him to sleep—for now.
 
Jesus’ birth is a time for joy; but we gaze upon Jesus in the manger because he is also the one who hung upon the cross for the salvation of all. Brilliant scholar that she was, Sor Juana uses the simplest possible language in this poem, and manages to capture the paradox of Christmas.
 
Sor Juana was independent, unconventional, and brilliant. Her outspoken advocacy for education for women drew the attention, and ultimately the criticism, of some Church leaders. She received an official reprimand from her bishop in 1691, and by 1693, she had stopped writing. She sold her 4000-volume library and her musical instruments, and dedicated herself to service in her religious community. While tending to her sisters during an outbreak of plague, she contracted the disease herself and died on April 17, 1695.  She was 44 years old.
 
The extraordinary Sor Juana was never forgotten, but in the past century, she has been recognized as one of the major poets in the Spanish language. And today, the cloister where she lived and died is a museum and a university—a transformation which Sor Juana would surely appreciate.
 
 
Read the poem in the original language
 
Pues mi Dios ha nacido a penar,
déjenle velar.
 
Pues está desvelado por mí
déjenle dormir.
 
Déjenle velar,
que no hay pena, en quien ama,
como no penar.
 
Dejénle dormir,
que quien duerme, en el sueño
se ensaya a morir.
 
Silencio, que duerme.
   Cuidado, que vela.
¡No le despierten, no!
   Sí le despierten, sí!
 ¡Déjenle velar!
    ¡Déjenle dormir!
 

 

 

 

 

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