Literature of the Western World Essay

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Literature of the Western World

Fray Luis De Leon’s use of the good shepherd motif in At the Ascension (Wilkie & Hurt, 2001) is a wholly unexpected one.  Hearing the phrase or title ‘the good shepherd’ clearly fills one with expectation that the word good in it means good of action.  In other words, a reader encountering this phrase would assume that the shepherd is good because of the work that he does.  For example, a shepherd who carefully rounds up his sheep would be a good shepherd, while one who loses his sheep would be a bad shepherd.

This is in opposition to ‘good’ referring to a quality of character.  In this fashion, good is a description of what a person is, not what a person does.  This is apart from action.  It is this latter understanding that is what De Leon leaves us with.  He writes “Holy Shepherd, dost thou leave thy flock in this valley profound and obscure, to dwell with solitude and grieve, while piercing through the heavens pure, thou risest to immortality secure?” (p. 2217).  This is certainly not the typical use of the metaphor in religious literature.

For a more conventional, religious interpretation of the shepherd, consider this oft quoted poem from Lope de Vega entitled The Good Shepherd (Walsh, 1920).  In it he writes, “Shepherd! Who with thine amorous sylvan song, hast broken the slumber that encompassed me, who mad’st thy crook from the accursed tree, on which thy powerful arms were stretched so long!  Lead me to mercy’s ever-flowing fountains; for thou my shepherd, guard and guide shall be.”

This image from de Vega is in complete opposition to the use of the form by de Leon.  It represents, again, a more typical usage of shepherd in a religious context, and is used to demonstrate unconditional, usually sacrificial love for others, as in de Vega.  De Leon, though, turns that motif around, blaming the shepherd for not being all the things that our expectations demand.

St. John of the Cross, in his poem I Entered Where I Did Not Know would seem, at least at first glance/first read, to be a substantial paradox.  Certainly to the secular reader, it must be such.  It is a poem that explores such seemingly contradictory thoughts such as, “Unknowing where I was, I learned unheard of things, but what I heard I cannot say, for I remained unknowing, all reason now transcended” (Wilkie & Hurt, 2001, p. 2220).

  Using the words ‘learned’ and ‘unknowing’ in the same few lines does not just transcend reason, but transcends every expectation but contradiction.  This, as I stated, though, is the view of the secular reader.  The paradox is unraveled and the mystery revealed when read through the lens of the religious observer who is accustomed to this type of usage of the limitations of humanity.  St. John clearly is talking of two realms here, the physical (mortal) and the spiritual (eternal).  Knowledge that the self possesses, he is intimating through this poem, is only the knowledge of the physical world that we have.  In that area of understanding, we have our version of knowledge – what he calls ‘knowing’.

However, when attempting to grasp the reality of the spiritual world, our knowledge that we possess about the physical world is absolutely useless to us.  Our very own reason (i.e. our mind) cannot even begin to understand what it sees of the spirit world.  It remains outside of our comprehension, and our ability to gain knowledge of.  Even when we stand in its presence, we are left unknowing.

Lupercio Leonardo de Argensola’s poem beginning, “First I must confess, Don Juan,” is most certainly a serious, though clever, observation about appearance and truth.  It reads in a whimsical sort of fashion, and is almost too witty for its own good.  Because of its non subtle imagination, and condescending language, the poem is often misunderstood.  The reader is apt to rush to judgment.  Far from being just a playful conceit, however, it contains much deeper meaning.

Lines such as, “…Dona Elvira’s pink and white, if truly seen, owe to her no more than what they cost to buy,” (Wilkie & Hurt, 2001, p. 2239) indicate such a lack of value of internal beauty (and perhaps external beauty, for that matter) within Dona Elvira that the reader almost must laugh at the pointed jest.  But this is serious.  Considering how Argensola treats this appearance of the lady, this is plain to see.  He attributes her with ‘false beauty’ and ‘deceit’, and then goes on to explain that he is swayed by it.  It is clear that he finds this trait of hers to be contrary to truth and is merely appearance.

If the poet did not find these issues to be important, then he would have just stated the appearance of the deceit, and been done with it.  Since he adds commentary, however, by going on to talk about its influence on him (and presumably all men), a serious tone is affected.  It is similar, then, to Campion’s Amaryllis in I Care Not for These Ladies (Campion).  Campion declares of the country maid that her natural beauty disdains art and that her beauty is actually her own.  In other words, this is the same question that Argensola raises, the same test he puts to the woman in his poem.  Does she have internal beauty, that of truth without falsehood?

This is the true beauty of internal integrity.  Or is she just a painted lady, who practices deceit with her very face?  These are serious questions about not only appearance, but also of truth, and both Argensola and Campion express the same judgment in the end.  These are not mere plays on words, but deeper exercises into human behavior.

Sor Juana’s verses regarding men’s choices and their consequences shows her craft at its very best (Wilkie & Hurt, 2001).  As has been noted, it is the choice of her weapon – reason – that made her and still makes her one of the top anti-misogynists of all time.  Her lack of flowery wording and coy assumptions and directions lend to the power of her poems.

She remains fully a poet, while also assuming a full role of sociologist.  Had she been purely focused on the direct attack, a non-rational set of accusations, her legacy would have been much different.  She knew and understood that the direct attack through poetry or other works of literature have been long derided as pure emotionalism, a weakness men attribute to women.  Therefore, Sor Juana did turn to logic and rationale.  Ironically, these have long been promoted by men to be men’s tools.

Her use of paradoxes to dismiss men’s treatment of women is astounding and successful.  Her words are sharp.  She raises issues in a back and forth style, point for point, in which paradoxes are found, such as men stating that they will batter a woman down emotionally, but be upset when they show emotions.

Or courting a woman and then declaring her to be open and lewd when she accepts.  These paradoxes are enough for anyone – feminist or non feminist – to be able to understand that, as Sor Juana would say, “For plain default of common sense, could any action be so queer as oneself to cloud the mirror, then complain that it’s not clear?” (p. 2263).

Machiavellian behavior is that of cunning and duplicity.  This type of overt behavior is easily found in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Wilkie & Hurt, 2001).  However, it is a tempered, double edged sword.  It is too easy, nearly tempting, to assign pro- and anti-Machiavellian behavior within the play specifically to separate characters.

What is intriguing is the argument for and against within the same character.  Consider Prospero.  He is full of cunning and guile.  While outwardly extending a hand of friendship as Prince, he acts to destroy behind the scenes simultaneously.  He takes advantage of his mystical powers to control the situation from well beyond the reach of others.  In those ways, he is an easy to find villain.  Particularly, his sheer cunning and duplicitous grabs at power can be expressed as being Machiavellian.

But what of the other side of things?  Is there a different aspect by which Prospero can be observed?  Is he to be excused?  And if so, don’t we have to dismiss the Machiavellian notion? It is true that the play opens with his exile.  It appears true that his exile was a wrong done to him by Alonso.  Therefore all of his actions and behaviors through the play could be seen as rightful revenge.  And if this is true, wouldn’t his character be forgiven, and his motivations just?  Finally, in this way, would not Prospero be seen, himself, as actually anti-Machiavellian because he is driven by rightful justice?  This is the interesting question.  It begs us to look deeper into characters before blindly agreeing with popular literary criticism.


Campion, T. I Care Not For These Ladies. Poetry Foundation. Retrieved May 27, 2010


Walsh, T. (Ed.). (1920). Hispanic Anthology: Poems Translated from the Spanish by English

and North American Poets. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Wilkie, B., & Hurt, J. (Ed.). (2001). Literature of the Western World vol.1: The Ancient

World Through the Renaissance, 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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