San Juan de la Cruz: Noche oscura. Analysis.

San Juan de la Cruz. St. John of the Cross 1542-91.
Born Juan de Yepes in Fontiveros in the province of Avila, San Juan de la
Cruz (St. John of the Cross) was one of the great poets of Spain’s Golden Age (16th and 17th centuries) and is widely regarded as one of the most outstanding exponents of mystical poetry in any language.

Statue to San Juan in Fontiveros

Following studies at a Jesuit school (1559-63), San Juan entered the Carmelite Order in 1563, at the age of 21. From 1564 to 1568, he studied at the University of Salamanca, at that time one of the leading universities in Europe.

1567 was decisive year for San Juan: he was ordained priest and met the charismatic Santa Teresa de Avila (St. Theresa), a Carmelite nun engaged in reforming the Order. San Juan actively supported Santa Teresa’s reforms aimed at restoring the Order’s earlier simplicity. This led to his imprisonment in Toledo in 1577 at the hands of Carmelite monks who opposed Santa Teresa’s changes. The result of the ensuing rupture in the Order was the creation of the Discalced (i.e. Barefoot) Carmelites, with Santa Teresa and San Juan as their founding inspiration.

San Juan escaped from his prison in 1578 and spent the next ten years establishing Discalced Carmelite monasteries in Andalusia (e.g. in Málaga, Córdoba, Manchuela (Jaén), Caravaca (Murcia). After a three-year hiatus as prior in Segovia (Castile, 1588-91), he returned to Andalusia. Always rather delicate of health, he died in Ubeda in December 1591. He was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1675, canonised in 1726 and made Doctor of the Church in 1926.

Image of San Juan by Zurbarán

San Juan’s poetic output was very modest, and his period of poetic activity relatively short, mainly between his imprisonment in 1577-78 and 1585, when his travels and monastery-founding demands claimed much of his time. Although his best known poems are written in liras, an Italian stanza form introduced into Spain by Garcilaso de la Vega, San Juan actually wrote more verse using the traditional Castilian romance (ballad) metre. Where liras generally consisted of five lines with a combination of heptasyllables and hendecasyllables (7 and 11 syllables), much of traditional Spanish poetry was written in octosyllables (8 syllables). San Juan’s use of both Renaissance Italian metres and traditional Spanish metres was not unusual.  One of the features of Spain’s literary Golden Age was that after Garcilaso poets moved freely between both traditions.

San Juan’s fame as poet rests primarily on three poems: the Noche oscura (Dark Night, popularly known as Dark Night of the Soul), the Cántico espiritual (Spiritual Song), and the Llama de amor viva (Living Flame of Love).  They are poems that describe the mystical or transcendental (otherworldly) experience of the soul’s search for and unity with God. At the request of some Discalced Carmelite monks and nuns, San Juan wrote lengthy explanatory commentaries on each, as an aid to their understanding,

The mystical path to union between the soul and God follows three stages: the vía purgativa (the cleansing or purifying stage), the vía iluminativa (the path to enlightenment or illumination), and the vía unitiva (the stage of union). These are difficult paths that require the soul to purge itself of its sins and appetites and discard the worldly activity of the senses and the flesh.  Only then can the soul –now purified— experience the bliss of divine union.

Such mystical experience is so difficult to capture that, in order to approximate the intensity of the blissful encounter with God, San Juan makes use of erotic imagery drawn from our common human experiences.  And to bring us closer to that experience, he dramatizes or personalises the soul’s longing and its search. In the Cántico, for example, we have a loving dialogue between the wife (Esposa, or the soul) and the husband (Esposo, or Christ). In Noche oscura, a young girl (the soul) narrates an adventurous escape to meet her lover (God). In Llama de amor viva the soul addresses her lover (God) and recreates the state of ecstatic union she experiences when with Him.

La noche oscura. Dark Night (of the Soul).
To illustrate San Juan’s way of conveying the soul’s search and joy at achieving mystical union with God, we’ll focus here on the Noche oscura.

It’s an allegorical love poem in which a lovesick girl narrates how she escapes from her house in search of her lover. However, we need the full title to avoid the ambiguity that could otherwise occur: “Songs of the soul which rejoices at having reached the highest stage of perfection, which is union with God via the path of spiritual self-denial.”  This helps us to understand that the lovesick girl is a metaphor for the soul and that the house is metaphorically the body.

This clarification is important because nowhere in the poem do the words “soul” (alma), or “body” (cuerpo) or “God” (Dios) appear, and superficially the poem could be read as an erotic secular poem of a lovers’ tryst. But even read at this level, it still succeeds, speaking of the “mystery, wonder, tenderness and intimacy of a truly mutual relationship; it reveals sexual love as discovery, encounter, transformation, fulfilment” (Thompson 85).

Noche oscura
 is an eight-stanza poem which combines the three stages leading to mystical union. The stanza form of the poem is the lira. Each stanza is composed of five lines, combining lines of seven and eleven syllables (heptasyllables and hendecasyllables). The rhyming scheme is consonantal: aBabB, (lower case = heptasyllable, upper case = hendecasyllable).

Noche oscura is best read aloud, because the combination of the soft labial sounds (“n, m, b, v”) and the sibilant “s” (especially in stanzas 1 and 2) are beautifully adjusted to the sense of silence, secrecy and weightlessness that accompanies the young girl on her nocturnal escape from her home.

Stanzas 1 and 2.
En una noche oscura,                                 On a dark night,

con ansias en amores inflamada,               inflamed by the passions of love,
!Oh dichosa ventura!                                   oh joyous fortune!
Salí sin ser notada,                                      I left unnoticed,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.                    since my house was now at rest.

a escuras y segura,                                     in the dark and safely,
por la secreta escala disfrazada,                 by the secret ladder in disguise,
!oh dichosa ventura!                                    oh joyous fortune!
a escuras y en celada,                                 in the dark and concealed,
estando ya mi casa sosagada.                    since my house was now at rest.

The escape is an adventure that takes place secretly (Salí sin ser notada: “I left without being seen”) at night and in silence. Why is the soul undertaking this trip and what is she fleeing from? Because she is passionately in love (con ansias en amores inflamada) and her flight is a joyous (dichosa) escape from the body which is now at rest (sosegada).

The repetition of the exclamatory oh dichosa ventura (st. 1 line 3, st. 2 line 3) and estando ya mi casa sosegada (line 5 in both stanzas) underlines the joyous relief at now being able to escape from the body’s earthly appetites. It is the night that makes this possible, hence the noche dichosa (“joyous night”) that we read in stanza 3, line 1.

In stanza 2, the flight continues with one new element added to the escape of stanza 1: the means of escape, the hidden ladder (secreta escala) . Ladders are a common image in love poetry; they are used to gain access to a house or, as is the case here, to facilitate the girl’s escape or elopement. Adding to the sense of adventure is the disguise worn by the soul (which according to San Juan in his prose commentary on this poem was a white, green and red mantle, symbols of faith, hope and charity).

Emphasis has been placed in the first two stanzas on three elements: night, secrecy and joyous escape as the soul discards fleshly matters.  This is the vía purgativa, the cleansing stage.

Stanzas 3 and 4.
En una noche dichosa,                            On a joyous night,
en secreto, que nadie me veía,                in secret, for no one saw me,
ni yo miraba cosa,                                    nor did I look at anything,
sin otra luz y guía,                                    with no other light or guide.
sino la que en el corazón ardía.               but the one that burned in my heart.

Aquesta me guiaba                                   This (light) guided me
más cierto que la luz del mediodía,           more surely than the midday light,
a donde me esperaba                                to where awaited me
quien yo bien me sabía,                             he whom I knew well,
en parte donde nadie parecía.                   in a place where no one else appeared.

In these stanzas, the soul enters the second stage, the vía iluminativa or path of enlightenment. Joy and secrecy are reaffirmed immediately in the first two lines of stanza 3, as the soul follows the light that burns within her (the source of which is the lover’s love burning in her heart, corazón).  Now the physical world (the house and the ladder) that keeps the soul earthbound has disappeared and we enter the weightless, ethereal world of light. 

Light (luz) is used twice and pronouns alluding to light are also used twice: (la (luz) que en el corazón …, and Aquesta (luz) me guíaba). And where does this light guide the soul?  To him “whom I know well” (quien yo bien me sabía), i.e. the lover. And where is the lover? In that “place where no one else was to be seen” (en parte donde nadie parecía). Secrecy is now accompanied by mystery: who is this lover and where are they meeting?

Stanza 5.
!Oh noche que guiaste!                              Oh night that guided me!
!oh noche amable más que el alborada!    oh night more pleasing than the dawn!
!oh noche que juntaste                               oh night that joined together
amado con amada,                                     lover with beloved,
amada en el amado transformada!             (with) beloved transformed into lover!

Stanza 5 is an exceptional piece of writing and is the climax (pun intended) of the poem, i.e. it is the union of the beloved and the lover, the vía unitiva. The flight has ended and what we have now is the experience of the union. Although there are two verbs (que guiasteque juntaste) they function rather as adjectives, both modifying noche

The experience begins with the anaphora (repetition at the beginning of a sequence of lines) !Oh noche…” in the first three lines imparts a sense of urgency that mimics the ecstasy of lovemaking. Under cover of darkness, lover and beloved unite as one. And how is the union itself conveyed? By a remarkable interchange of the nouns “lover” and “beloved” (amado-amada-amado-amada) in the last two lines of the stanza ending with the key word transformada.

Night has provided the means for the lover to be joined with the beloved and for the beloved to be transformed into the lover. The rapid exchange of the nouns evokes the image of highly charged mutual embraces or coupling as they become one together. The soul has lost her spiritual virginity having been transformed in the course of their lovemaking. Their union, however, is not violent but tender, a sensation brilliantly conveyed by the labial “m,” the soft “d,” and the experience is lengthened by the open vowels “o” and “a.”

Stanzas 6-8.
En mi pecho florido,                                   On my flowering breast

que entero para él solo se guardaba,        that was kept entirely for him alone
alli quedó dormido,                                    there he fell asleep,
y yo le regalaba;                                        and I caressed him,
y el ventalle de cedros aire daba.             and the cedar leaves fanned him gently.

El aire de la almena,                                 The breeze came from the battlements,
cuando yo sus cabellos esparcía,             (and) when I was stroking his hair,
con su mano serena                                  with his gentle hand
en mi cuello hería,                                      he wounded my neck,
y todos mis sentidos suspendía.                (which left) all my senses suspended.

Quedéme y olvidéme,                          I stayed still and forgot myself,
el rostro recliné sobre el amado,         my face I laid on my beloved,
cesó todo, y dejéme,                           everything stopped, and I abandoned myself,
dejando mi cuidado                              leaving all my cares
entre las azucenas olvidado.                forgotten among the lilies.

We now pass to the post union state of repose although still infused by eroticism, but of a languid kind: the lover sleeps on the flowery breast of the girl which has been reserved only for him. Whilst the lover sleeps, the beloved tenderly caresses him while leaves from cedar trees provided a gentle breeze.

**Women’s hair has long had erotic connotation. Hence the covering of a lady’s hair, common in western society (especially in churches, temples etc.) until lately, and still widely practiced in Muslim societies and other cultures.

In stanza 7, the eroticism is conveyed by the lover’s hair** (which the young girl has been stroking) and the wound that she receives which leaves her senses suspended in wonder. 

In the last stanza (8), a series of verbs in the past preterite tense rapidly and concisely summarise the young girl’s suspended state: it is total stillness and a complete forgetting of herself. Everything ceases as she abandons herself, and in tranquil oblivion leaves her cares forgotten among the lilies.

It is an evocative picture, with the lilies –and the purity associated with their white colour– reaffirming the delicate, spiritual nature of the union. Sebastián de Covarubias’s dictionary Tesoro de la lengua castellana (1611) describes the lily as símbolo de la castidad por su blancura, y de la buena fama por su olor (“symbol of chastity because of its whiteness and fame because of its fragrance”).
San Juan’s sources are varied, but references to the wound of love, to the lover resting on the beloved’s breasts, to the lover’s hair, to cedars and to lilies recall the Jewish love songs that make up the Old Testament’s Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs), although San Juan’s poem is much more restrained and avoids direct sensual allusions.

The youthful feminine voice may also spring from the Song of Solomon but it was also very common in popular, profane poetry of different cultures. The image of the night seen in favourable terms also has a long history in love poetry, both secular and religious. After all, it favours lovers with the opportunity to meet secretly and wraps them in a cloak of silence and protective darkness.

A frequent accompaniment of the secret escape is the ladder that enables exit from or entry to the lovers’ trysts (e.g. Calisto and Melibea’s meetings in La Celestina).

San Juan’s success was in creating a series of images in which secrecy and mystery draw us immediately into the “action” which moves in three stages: escape, fulfilment, repose. Spanish readers will know immediately that the narrating “I” is a woman (from the feminine ending “a” of notada), but where is she going at night, alone? Our common understanding of this experience tells us that she is going to meet her lover.  But the identity of the lover remains a mystery, although not the pleasure and fulfilment derived from the adventurous escape and joyous union.
Noche oscura forms part of a wide tapestry of increased religiosity in Spanish culture (literature, art, sculpture) in the second half of the 16th century.  Much of it was inspired by the Catholic Church’s call to counteract the growth of Protestantism and to address concerns voiced by Catholic thinkers. It is a period commonly referred to as the Counter Reformation.

The reforms were formulated by the Council of Trent, a series of meetings held in the town of Trent in northern Italy between 1545 and 1563. Among other things, they advocated a greater and more militant spiritual and doctrinal message to the faithful. 

A partial response to the Catholic Church’s concerns was the appropriation of secular works and their conversion into sacred or devotional allegories, a lo divino, e.g. the poetry of Garcilaso de la Vega was rendered a lo divino, so too were romances of chivalry and pastoral novels. We’ll look in more detail at the reasons for this trend towards devotional writing in a another page.

Rivers, Elias Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, Prospect Heights, Illinois 1966, reissued 1988. (Has very useful English prose translations).
Thompson, Colin St. John of the Cross: Songs in the Night Washington, D.C. 2003 (see pp. 85-95 for a detailed and excellent analysis of Noche oscura).
Walters, D. Gareth  The Cambridge Introduction to Spanish Poetry Cambridge 2002.
Weber, Alison P. “Religious Literature in Early Modern Spain,” in The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature, ed. David T. Gies Cambridge 2009, pp. 149-58.
Yndurain, Domingo San Juan de la Cruz: Poesias Madrid 3rd ed. 1987.
Image of San Juan by Francisco de Zurbarán –, Public Domain, 
San Juan’s statue in Fontiveros By Dahis – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,