In Sor Juana’s Sonnet 186, a combination of assonance, alliterative effect, and slant rhyme work together to create an atmosphere of defiance and finality. The alliteration of the words “life” and “Laura” in lines 1 and 2, and the anaphoric parallel structure of tenses in the phrases “ever was yours” and “ever will be,” in the same two lines, equates life itself with Laura, the beloved, and underlines the notion that a powerful sense of continuity springs from written communion with—and love for—another woman.
Sor Juana concedes from the beginning of the sonnet that her life is not her own because it belongs to Laura, and then proceeds to reclaim it by denying Fate and death the right to take it. By beginning the second and third stanzas in the assertive past first person (“I was astounded” (i.5) and “I saw” (i.9)), she moves the discourse of the poem away from apostrophe to Laura in the first stanza toward the lyric. Anastrophe in line 7, “she no longer can wield any in mine,” upends Fate’s narrative structure of action, firmly placing the agency in Sor Juana’s hands.
In the first stanza, Sor Juana’s descriptive epithet “the savage Fate” personifies and de-humanizes the concept by assigning Fate both a name and an inhuman quality, while linking it to a definite article. This move sets the stage for Sor Juana’s later upheaval of Fate’s attempt to “claim” her “mortal foot in triumph” (i.4). Is “foot” a metaphor for the meter of Sor Juana’s verses? If so, the use of “foot” may well constitute a synecdoche to represent the entirety of her own “mortal” life with her poetry itself, the power structure that Sor Juana uses to express her intelligence and longing within the constraints of her life experience.
A caesura in the second stanza that wraps two slant rhymed lines reinforces Sor Juana’s determination and bold confidence.
for if greater power lies ‘neath her domain,
she no longer can wield any in mine:
you allowed me to free myself from her. (iii.6-8).
The contrast between Fate’s “domain” and what Sor Juana claims as “mine” again serves to prioritize the personal over the natural and the institutional forces that besiege her.
The metaphor in the third stanza constitutes a volta that turns the poem away from the abstract apprehension of death toward more visceral fright and appreciation: “I saw the mortal, fearsome scissors open / to cut through the thread” (ii.9-10). The words “fearsome scissors” and “through the thread” elegantly juxtapose sibilance with fricatives. The effect underscores the beauty and terror of Fate and showcases Sor Juana’s ability to frame the terrible in bewitching terms.
The contrast between Fate’s “rash daring” in line 5 and “and she, abashed, departed” in line 13 creates well-separated consonance and alliteration that serve to reinforce the idea that, through the power of her speech and persuasion, Sor Juana can compel Fate herself to “depart” and “speed away.” In the final line, assonance abounds in the striking statement “leaving me to die for you, no one but you” (i.14). The heavy drag of the vowel harmony on stressed syllables in the phrase “no one but you” is reminiscent of a death knell. Arriving as it does at the end of a poem in which the speaker flagrantly spurns death’s advance with “fearsome scissors,” this conclusion returns the poem to an apostrophe that is final, emphatic, and concessive. The sonnet begins and ends with an address to the rightful arbiter of Sor Juana’s fate: Laura.
Sor Juana’s Sonnet 186 (tr. Edith Grossman)
In this life of mine that ever was yours,
O divine Laura, and ever will be,
the savage Fate, determined to pursue me,
wanted to claim my mortal foot in triumph.
I was astounded by her rash daring,
for if great power lies ‘neath her domain,
she no longer can wield any in mine:
you allowed me to free myself from her.
I saw the mortal, fearsome scissors open
to cut through the thread she never had spun;
oh savage, terrible Fate! I said then,
know that no one but Laura commands here;
and she, abashed, departed and sped away,
leaving me to die for you, no one but you.