by sister juana ines de la cruz
For a little while, sad Thought,
let’s pretend I’ve a happy lot.
You may actually convince me,
though now I’m convinced I do not.
In feeling apprehension
they say the trouble lies:
if you’ll only feel you’re happy,
you needn’t be otherwise.
Let my intelligence serve,
for once, as a source of comfort.
Must wit forever remain
an enemy to profit?
The world is full of opinions
of what is or is not true;
whatever is black for one
will be white in another’s view
What one man finds attractive
will make another recoil;
while what brings one man relief,
another rejects as toil.
The man who is sad condemns
the cheerful man as inane,
while the cheerful are greatly amused
when they hear the sad complain.
Those two old thinkers of Greece
were always of opposite cheer:
what split the one with laughter
reduced the other to tears.
The centuries since their time
have echoed their difference of view,
but no one can ever decide
which opinion is false, which true.
If my wits are mine alone,
why must they always be
inept at doing me good,
adroit at harming me?
Reason, just like a sword,
can be wielded at either end:
the blade, to wound to the death;
the hilt, to provide defense.
If, well aware of the danger,
you insist on using the blade,
how can you blame the sword
for a choice you yourself have made?
It’s no wisdom to use one’s mind
for subtle but hollow display:
true wisdom simply consists
in choosing the sounder way.
To deal in portents of trouble
and ominous speculation
will only compound disaster
with a burden of expectation.
When it dwells on imagined troubles,
the mind is all tribulation;
later on, it will find real danger
less frightening than anticipation.
How happy in his unknowing
is the man unlettered yet wise,
who finds relief from suffering
in what no knowledge supplies.
The boldest flights of wit
will be buffeted by the wind;
though aspiring to thrones of fire,
in tombs of tears they will end.
Learning is one more vice.
Unless deterred, its ambition,
when the learned least expect,
will lead them straight to perdition.
If its course is not deflected,
on subtleties learning feeds,
indifferent to genuine needs.
What mad ambition drives us
to forget ourselves, to our grief?
What use is all our learning,
when human life is so brief?
What we need is a seminar
with no other aim than showing
not the ways of human learning
but the comforts of not knowing.
Exempt from need for caution,
taking pleasure in all things,
we’d scoff at whatever threats
the stars’ influence brings.
Thought, let’s learn not to know,
since so plainly it appears
that whatever we add to our minds
we take away from our years.
translation by alan s. trueblood
editors: spitball fury & frank freedom