José Rosas Moreno (1838-1883), a native of Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco, Mexico, served in various governmental positions during his lifetime, but was equally well-regarded as an author. One of his best-known works centered on the life of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648 – 1695), a nun sometimes known as the Tenth Muse because of her work as a poet, dramatist, and scholar.
Sor Juana, as she is known, emerged as an outstanding writer during the Latin American colonial period, although it was not until Octavio Paz’s 1982 biographical and literary study of her writings, Sor Juana: Or, The Traps of Faith that José Rosas Moreno himself became known to a wider audience outside of Mexico. Moreno also devoted himself to poetry, drama, and children’s literature; a series of Aesop-like fables he authored has remained popular in Mexico.
In 1872, American poet William Cullen Bryant was invited to become an honorary member of the Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadística (Mexican Society of Geography and Statistics). In order to accept the honor in person, Bryant sailed to Veracruz, then took a stagecoach to Mexico City. There, he met Moreno and translated nine of the Mexican’s Fábulas, or Fables. Writing in The Spanish Background of American Literature, Stanley Williams notes that Bryant may have been “the first major American poet to recognize the achievements of his Mexican brothers” and to allow, for the first time, “a poet of Mexico [receiving] in the United States the most substantial of recognitions: namely, adequate translation into the English language.”
After returning to the United States, Bryant wrote the following letter dated October 2, 1876, to one Miss Bates from his residence on Long Island, New York:
Dear Miss Bates.
It seems to me almost certain that I answered your inquiry concerning the author of the little poem which I translated from the Spanish. His name is Rosas — José Rosas — a Mexican, whose little volume entitled “Fabulas” is adopted as a leading book in the schools of the Mexican capital. From the preface by his friend Ignacio Altamirano, a literary gentleman of note — and of the pure aboriginal race — I learn that he was known as a poet before the “Fabulas” were published in 1872.
The Libro de Fábulas consists of five volumes. Each contains twenty original verse fables (although only nineteen are included in Book IV), plus an appendix of thirteen verse fables. Some, like a well-known fable involving a camel, have been included in public memorials. While I haven’t been able to locate all fables translated by Bryant, I was charmed by the humor in the mockingbird’s poem, and appreciated the introduction to a new Mexican poet.
A mock-bird in a village
Had somehow gained the skill
To imitate the voices
Of animals at will.
And singing in his prison
Once, at the closing of the day,
He gave, with great precision,
The donkey’s heavy bray.
Well pleased, the mock-bird’s master
Sent to the neighbors ’round,
And bade them come together
To hear that curious sound.
They came, and all were talking
In praise of what they heard,
And one delighted lady
Would fain have bought the bird.
The donkey listened sadly,
And said: “Confess I must
That these are shallow people,
And terribly unjust.
“I’m bigger than that mock-bird,
And better bray than he,
Yet not a soul has uttered
A word in praise of me.”