“A tomb for thee, my babe!” Bad Poems for the Death of Children

Photograph of Julia A. Moore, circa 1877.


Julia Ann Moore (1847–1920), the “Sweet Singer of Michigan,” was one of the worst American poets of the nineteenth century, or perhaps of any century. Her ear for the clunky inverted phrase, or the just-miss rhyme, generated bad verse on patriotic themes and historical subjects, but what really inspired her was obituary poetry, a genre which thrived all through the nineteenth century, and which drew steadily on the talent—or lack of talent—of local amateur commemorative poets. And her specialty within a specialty was obituary poetry for those dying young: “Every time one of my darlings died, or any of the neighbor’s children were buried, I just wrote a poem on their death,” she told an interviewer from the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean in 1878. “That’s the way I got started.”

How bad was she? Well, this is from “Little Charlie Hades”:

His little life was short on earth,
Being but three years old;
His little form so full of mirth,
the cold earth enfold
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

His laughing eyes of violet blue,
Are closed in deep repose;
His curly hair of coal black hue,
His little head inclose.
In beauty he was bright and fair,
He was his friends’ delight;
They miss his footsteps everywhere,
From morning until night.

Or perhaps you would prefer this, from “Hattie House:”

Those little girls will not forget
The day little Hattie died,
For she was with them when she fell in a fit,
While playing by their side.[1]

Are we uncomfortable yet? Moore became a public figure and, for some, a public joke, with the appearance of her poetry collections, The Sentimental Song Book in 1876 and A Few Choice Words to the Public in 1878. It was her publisher, James F. Ryder from Cleveland, who apparently coined the “Sweet Singer” name, when he reprinted her first book and issued her second; he sent his edition out to newspapers and to writers with an arch cover letter, saying that the book would “prove a health lift to the overtaxed brain; it may divert the despondent from suicide.” Ryder got the response he wanted with the Rochester Democrat reviewer commenting, “Shakespeare, could he read it, would be glad that he was dead” and other reviewers joining in the fun.

The sentimentalism of the nineteenth century, especially around children and most especially around their deaths (and consequent elevation to heaven) provoked its own antithesis, an acid dislike of saccharine scenes of saintly children on their deathbeds (think Little Eva) and angels in heaven looking down. In his book on the tradition of elegy in American poetry, Max Cavitch speaks of “the profuse, etiolated leaves of antebellum child elegy—at once the most cherished and reviled of subgenres.”[2] Infants and children died frequently in the nineteenth century, and parents looked for ways to mourn and remember the lost; the common thread of child mortality linked those who commissioned the obituary poems, those who wrote them, often to order, and even those who mocked. And when we look back to a lost world of what would seem to us impossibly high child mortality, obituary poetry may provide some clues to how parents coped—either by crying or by laughing.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, well over 20 percent of the white babies born in the U.S. died by their first birthdays, as did as many as 34 percent of black infants, and many of those who did survive to the first birthday died of childhood diseases later on. Childhood death touched almost every family, and obituary poetry, often composed by local amateur poets, usually published in the local paper along with the death notice, dates back to the early years of the century but thrived in the late-nineteenth-century culture of deathbed portraits and elaborately sentimental mourning. The literary effusions generated by child deaths presumably offered genuine comfort to grieving parents, as well as a public and “literary” occasion for marking grief and expressing faith that the child was safely in heaven. Such literature, however, also called forth satire and mockery, in the United States as in England, where the most famous childhood death of the century, Little Nell’s endless passing away in The Old Curiosity Shop, famously drew tears from Daniel O’Connell, the Irish political leader known as “The Liberator,” who reportedly threw the story out a train window, declaring, “He should not have killed her.” Even more famously, Nell’s death supposedly elicited Oscar Wilde’s comment that one must have a heart of stone to read the scene without laughing.

Nowadays, the most famous nineteenth-century American “obituary poet” is a parody, the fictional figure of Emmeline Grangerford in Huckleberry Finn. Amateur obituary poetry thus crossed over into American literature to survive in a mocking mirror image; the original poets are largely forgotten, except in occasional debates about who was the model for Emmeline, Mark Twain’s lugubrious child prodigy poet, and her morbid versifying (Moore is generally considered the leading candidate). Huck is given shelter by the Grangerford family, “a mighty nice family, and a mighty nice house, too. I hadn’t seen no house out in the country before that was so nice and had so much style,” Huck comments. In his inventory of middle-class creature comforts—the books, the mantelpiece clock—Huck is particularly struck by the art and poetry left behind by their deceased daughter, Emmeline. Emmeline’s “crayons” include a picture of a woman in mourning leaning on a tombstone, titled, “Shall I Never See Thee More Alas,” and her poems are a collection of elegies. Huck comments that though the family regrets their talented daughter, “I reckoned that with her disposition she was having a better time in the graveyard.”

In 1870, long before Huckleberry Finn, Twain had published an essay called “Post-Mortem Poetry,” in which he mocked, rather brutally, the obituary verse regularly published in the Philadelphia Ledger: “There is an element about some poetry which is able to make even physical suffering and death cheerful things to contemplate and consummations to be desired.” And of course, when he invented Emmeline Grangerford, he also invented a sample of her poetry, the “Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec’d”:

And did young Stephen sicken,
And did young Stephen die?
And did the sad hearts thicken,
And did the mourners cry?
No; such was not the fate of
Young Stephen Dowling Bots;
Though sad hearts round him thickened,
’Twas not from sickness’ shots.

The poem goes on to explain that he died neither from whooping cough nor “measles drear with spots” and specifies in somewhat grim detail that the cause of death was falling down a well.

They got him out and emptied him;
Alas it was too late;
His spirit was gone for to sport aloft
In the realms of the good and great.

Huck Finn, who admires the poetry, comments that “she could write about anything you choose to give her to write about just so it was sadful” and reports that Emmeline was so quick with her “tributes” when anyone died that “The neighbors said it was the doctor first, then Emmeline, then the undertaker.” In a few pages of caustic satire aimed at the nineteenth-century culture of genteel mourning, Mark Twain managed to give obituary poetry —and obituary poets—a greater slice of immortality than their own work would have necessarily earned them; Emmeline Grangerford has outlasted her real-life prototypes. These included not just Julia Ann Moore, but also Lydia Huntley Sigourney, not to mention those professionals who wrote the verses in the Philadelphia Public Ledger and the remarkably named Bloodgood Cutter (his real name; his parents were Mary Bloodgood Haviland and Richard Cutter), the self-styled “Long Island Farmer Poet” who also found his way into Mark Twain’s work.

Moore was mocked—among other things—for her crude and uneducated pen, but obituary poetry flourished among more educated and cultured readers—and writers. The “Sweet Singer of Hartford” (Twain’s own hometown), Lydia Huntley Sigourney (1791⁠–1865), was well-educated, and a best-selling author, a noted educator, a pioneer in educating the deaf (she was the first person in the United States to teach a deaf child to read and write), not to mention an active abolitionist, who corresponded with Thomas Jefferson about Native American rights. She had a town named after her (Sigourney, Iowa), and she met Queen Victoria. But on the New England Historical Society website, you will find her under “Mrs. Sigourney, Hartford’s High Priestess of Bad Poetry,” and the text begins, “During the first half of the nineteenth century, Mrs. Sigourney wrote such bad poetry upon a person’s death that she was said to add a new terror to dying.”

In the great tradition of obituary poetry, her elegies, like Moore’s were highly specific; for Henrietta Selden Colt, who died in 1862, aged 7 months and 27 days, Sigourney wrote, “The Mourning Mother,” which begins:

A tomb for thee, my babe!
Dove of my bosom, can it be?
But yesterday in all thy charms,
Laughing and leaping in my arms,
A tomb and shroud for thee!

Sigourney was sophisticated in her rhyme schemes and often ambitious in her subjects, but the childhood elegies hit the same notes over and over:

Seven blest years our darling daughter,
We have held thee to our hearts,
Every season growing dearer;
We have held thee near and nearer,
Never dreaming thus to part
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Germ of promise,—bud of beauty,
To our tenderest nurture given,
Not for our too dim beholding
Was thy fair and full unfolding;
That perfection is in Heaven.

Mark Twain knew her work, including her in a list of those guilty of “bad grammar and slovenly English,” and Edgar Allan Poe, who took her work more seriously, criticized her as imitative and not entitled to the fame she enjoyed. Within a year after her death, Sigourney was the target of a lengthy attack by another Connecticut “neighbor,” Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale, who mocked her poetry as occasioning “a hearty laugh” and stressed in particular her penchant for elegies, calling her life “one obituary volume”; he even told a story of a man who would not ride on the train with her for fear there might be a wreck and she would end up mentioning him in one of her poems.

In her lifetime, Sigourney was a highly successful writer. She was also a mother who had her own experience of losing children; only two of her five lived to grow up. In her extremely successful advice book Letters to Mothers, she offered a different genre of consolation literature, acknowledging the inevitability of sorrow when children die: “to bear the loss of children with submission, requires the strong exercise of a christian’s faith,” she wrote, “the death of a babe creates no common sorrow. Even the burial of one that has never breathed, brings a keen pang to a parent’s heart.” She counseled mothers to take comfort in the certainty that the children had gone to eternal joy and would rest free from the evil temptations which might have come later, had they lived: “To be sinless, and at rest, is a glorious heritage.”[3]

Moore’s book, on the other hand, was consistently mocked, but her verse was also read—and presumably commissioned—by people who took it seriously. She had a tragic maternal history herself—as so many did, and as so often in biographies of those who lived in the nineteenth century, that is passed over in a sentence: “On her seventeenth birthday, in 1864, she married Frederick Franklin Moore, an eighteen-year-old farmer. The first of their ten children (including a stillborn son), of whom only six reached adulthood, was born one year later.” The experience of losing four of her own clearly shaped her poetry; she told the reporter that she started writing her poems when her own “darlings” died.

And as for Mark Twain, he had lost his own son twelve years before he published Huckleberry Finn. His first child (and only son), Langdon Clemens, was born in 1870, a month premature. He weighed only four and a half pounds and was not initially expected to live. He survived, a delicate infant with frequent respiratory infections. By the next year, however, he was thriving, according to his father: “Our baby is flourishing wonderfully . . . . He can’t walk, though 16 months old; but that is not backwardness of development physically, but precocity of development intellectually . . .” The next month, however, Langdon caught a chill, and years later, Clemens would write that it was all his fault; he had let the blanket slip off his son during a coach ride. Langdon got sicker, was diagnosed with diphtheria, and died in June 1872, at the age of 19 months. So the man who ventriloquized the satiric elegy for Stephen Dowling Bots had his own lost boy to mourn in his own way, though his objection to bad “postmortem poetry” was still strong after Langdon’s death, when he created Emmeline and her poems.[4]

When I was about fourteen, my aunt and uncle gave me a copy of The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse, edited by Wyndham and Charles Lee, and originally published in 1930, a few years before George Orwell published his essay identifying Kipling as “a good bad poet,” defining such poems as those which “reek of sentimentality, and yet . . . are capable of giving true pleasure to people who can see clearly what is wrong with them.”[5] The Stuffed Owl, along with the stilted sentences and forced rhymes of now-deservedly-obscure poets, includes what the compilers felt were the worst verses of Byron and Emerson and Wordsworth. Moore, in her special famous-for-being-bad category, gets a chapter to herself. What I loved most about the book was the sense that it gave me, as an adolescent, of being in on the joke, of enjoying myself in an adult company of delighted intellectual contempt. The anthology is still in print, currently part of the series of New York Review of Books reprints, for bad poetry remains compelling, not least perhaps because sometimes, as Orwell said, it is capable of affecting us in spite of our convictions of superiority.

Julia Ann Moore gave public recitations and was angry when she was jeered; she and her husband eventually understood the mockery, and she withdrew from public life, partly at his behest. The Chicago journalist, in his article about “Michigan’s Nightin­gale,” was particularly entertained by the idea of poetry written by a woman who was missing teeth and had “hands, brown and stained with toil,” and who generally showed “the hard touches of the unromantic life of the farmer’s wife.” Moore was deeply offended (she had, after all, made him welcome in her home) and included a response in her second poetry collection, “To My Friends and Critics,” in which, despite all her signature issues of diction, she invoked emotions which would probably resonate with many more successfully literary authors:

The papers have ridiculed me
A year and a half or more.
Such slander as the interview
I never read before . . .
Dear Friends, I write for money,
With a kind heart and hand,
I wish to make no Enemies
Throughout my native land.
Kind friends, now I close my rhyme,
And lay my pen aside,
Between me and my critics
I leave you to decide.

Huckleberry Finn may include the most famous obituary poetess cameo in American literature, but it’s not the most interesting. “A Poetess,” a short story by Mary Wilkins Freeman, ran in Harpers Magazine in 1890, one of the New England regional pieces for which the writer was increasingly known, written in her trademark dialect. In a small, poor, rural town, a bereaved mother, Mrs. Caxton, comes to see Betsey, the poetess of the title, and to beg her to write a poem in memory of Little Willie, who has just died. The child, of course, was angelic: “You could mention how—handsome he was, and good, and I never had to punish him but once in his life, and how pleased he was with his little new suit, and what a sufferer he was, and—how we hope he is at rest—in a better land.” Betsey agrees to write the poem, and the mother gives way to her grief: “It seems as if—I couldn’t have it so sometimes,” Mrs. Caxton said, brokenly. “I keep thinkin’ he’s in the other—room. Every time I go back home when I’ve been away it’s like—losin’ him again. Oh, it don’t seem as if I could go home and not find him there—it don’t, it don’t!”

But the mother’s grief, however intense, is really just a plot pretext for the real substance of the story, the writing of the poem. When Mrs. Caxton has gone, Betsey writes her tribute, and as she does so, we get a sense of her very parsimonious spinster life, eking out bread and tea with the few peas that she grows in her garden. She has to draft her poem on the backs of old envelopes, because paper is too expensive. But she falls into a rapture as she writes: “She meditated, and wrote one line, then another. Now and then she read aloud what she had written with a solemn intonation. She sat there thinking and writing, and the time went on. . . . The long curls drooped over her cheeks; her thin yellow hand, cramped around the pen, moved slowly and fitfully over the paper.”

But Mary Wilkins Freeman knows how bad the poem is that Betsey is writing with such rapt concentration: “Betsey in this room, bending over her portfolio, looked like the very genius of gentle, old-fashioned, sentimental poetry. It seemed as if one, given the premises of herself and the room, could easily deduce what she would write, and read without seeing those lines wherein flowers rhymed sweetly with vernal bowers, home with beyond the tomb, and heaven with even.” Mrs. Caxton is so pleased with the poem that she pays to have handsome copies printed on black-bordered paper, and Betsey is transported by this honor, which seems to her “like a large edition of a book.” But then Mrs. Caxton comes back, to report in high dudgeon that the minister has said the poem is no good, and Betsey is undone by the criticism. Desolated, she burns all the poetry that she has written and puts the ashes into a china sugar bowl, and not long after that, she sinks into a decline and dies. And before she dies, she asks the minister to be sure that the ashes of her poetry are buried with her.

Freeman is unflinching in confronting the terrible verse that Betsey writes but allows her the very real despair of someone whose sense of vocation has been shattered, and that grief is far more vivid in the story than the plot-point grief of the bereaved mother: “‘I’d like to know if it’s fair,’ said she. ‘I’d like to know if you think it’s fair. Had I ought to have been born with the wantin’ to write poetry if I couldn’t write it—had I? Had I ought to have been let to write all my life, an’ not know before there wa’n’t any use in it?’” When Julia Ann Moore recited her poetry onstage at Powers Opera House in Grand Rapids in December 1878, she finally understood that her audience was laughing at her, and she told them, “Literary is a work very hard to do.”

Obituary poetry gave parents a chance to mark passings that were otherwise all too common, to proclaim their attachment to their departed children and to marvel at the beauty, goodness, piety, intelligence, promise of the dead or dying child. The poems acknowledge the need for religious obedience, for the pious acceptance of whatever God may have dealt, and they often reassure that the child has gone on to eternal life in paradise.

And parents valued the public expression of those emotions. When Edward, the second son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, died in 1850 at the age of three (he had suffered with diphtheria for 52 days), the family was living in Springfield, Illinois; an anonymous obituary poem was printed “by request” in the Illinois Daily Journal and was subsequently attributed by biographers to Abraham and then to Mary (perhaps because no one wanted to believe Abraham capable of it), and then traced to a poet named Ethel Grey, who later published it:[6]

The angel death was hovering nigh,
And the lovely boy was called to die.

The silken waves of his glossy hair
Lie still over his marble brow,
And the pallid lip and pearly cheek
The presence of Death avow.
Pure little bud in kindness given,
In mercy taken to bloom in heaven.

Whoever wrote it, the poem clearly mattered to the grieving parents, who had the Bible verse which ends the last stanza, “of such is the kingdom of heaven,” inscribed on Eddy’s tombstone.

Twain and Freeman also suggest a profound self-consciousness about the ways that nineteenth-century American culture, at its most sentimental, fed upon child death, fostering terrible poetry. Their fiction shows that culture generating its own mocking mirror image; the amateur obituary poet walked a fine line between bathos and burlesque; perfect sincerity was no protection against the ridiculous.

But the obituary poems and the obituary poets also raise complex issues about the comforts and consolations of poetry, for the writer and for the reader, and perhaps also about the comforts of despising poetry. In an era when grieving a child—or more than one child—was a standard concomitant of parenthood, writers good and bad could assume that most of their readers would know this grief from personal experience; they would have lost children, lost siblings, lost schoolmates. Were the people who enjoyed laughing at the clunky cadences of Julia Ann Moore so far removed from the audiences that wept over the death—and ascent to heaven—of Little Eva? Surely no one was more than one degree of separation away from either the tragic truth of child mortality or the most sentimental doggerel that could be hung on the skeleton of that truth. Perhaps those who wrote obituary poetry and those who laughed at it, those who published it for the sake of mockery and those who kept it by the bed for comfort, were all of them driven by related impulses, the delicate line between the different kinds of pathos and the pathetic, between the sad details of memory and the unexpected comforts of the sweet singer’s rhymes. In Moore’s words, I leave you to decide.
[1] Moore’s writings, as well as the transcripts of her newspaper interviews, are collected with a biographical essay in Mortal Refrains: The Complete Collected Poetry, Prose, and Songs of Julia A. Moore, The Sweet Singer of Michigan, ed. by Thomas J. Riedlinger (East Lansing, 1998).

[2] Max Cavitch, American Elegy: The Poetry of Mourning from the Puritans to Whitman (Minneapolis, 2007), p. 149.

[3] Lydia Huntley Sigourney, Letters to Mothers (New York, 1839), pp. 261⁠–3.

[4] An analysis of Langdon’s brief life and Twain’s grief can be found in Joseph Csicsila, “The England Trip of 1872: Mark Twain’s First Season in Hell,” The Mark Twain Annual, Vol. 16, No. 1 (2018), pp. 1⁠–10.

[5] To illustrate the pervasive presence of sentimental child mortality in discussions of bad poetry, Orwell in his essay says of Kipling, “He is as a poet what Harriet Beecher Stowe was as a novelist,” and then, in his list of famous “good bad poems,” cites Bret Harte’s poem, “Dickens in Camp,” in which a gold rush mining camp listens raptly to the story of Little Nell.

[6] Samuel P. Wheeler, “Solving a Lincoln Literary Mystery: ‘Little Eddie,’” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Vol. 33, Issue 2 (Summer 2012), pp. 34⁠–46.