Julia Ann Moore, the “Sweet Singer of Michigan”, born Julia Ann Davis in Plainfield Township, Kent County, Michigan (December 1, 1847–June 5, 1920), was an American poet, or more precisely, poetaster.
Like Scotland’s William McGonagall, she is famed chiefly for writing notoriously bad poetry.
Young Julia grew up on her family’s Michigan farm, the eldest of four children. When she was ten, her mother became ill, and Julia assumed many of her mother’s responsibilities. Her formal education was thereby limited.
In her mid-teens, she started writing poetry and songs, mostly in response to the death of children she knew, but any newspaper account of disaster could inspire her.
At age 17, she married Frederick Franklin Moore, a farmer. Julia ran a small store and, over the years, bore ten children, of whom six survived to adulthood. She continued to write poetry and songs.
Moore’s first book of verse, The Sentimental Song Book was published in 1876 by C. M. Loomis of Grand Rapids, and quickly went into a second printing. A copy ended up in the hands of James F. Ryder, a Cleveland publisher, who republished it under the title The Sweet Singer of Michigan Salutes the Public.
Ryder sent out numerous review copies to newspapers across the country, with a cover letter filled with low key mock praise.
And so Moore received national attention. Following Ryder’s lead, contemporary reviews were amusedly negative. The Rochester Democrat wrote of Sweet Singer, that
Shakespeare, could he read it, would be glad that he was dead …. If Julia A. Moore would kindly deign to shed some of her poetry on our humble grave, we should be but too glad to go out and shoot ourselves tomorrow.
The Hartford Daily Times said that
to meet such steady and unremitting demands on the lachrymal ducts one must be provided, as Sam Weller suspected Job Trotter was, ‘with a main, as is allus let on.’…
The collection became a curious best-seller, though it is unclear whether this was due to public amusement with Moore’s poetry or genuine appreciation of the admittedly “sentimental” character of her poems. It was, more or less, the last gasp of that school of obituary poetry that had been broadly popular in the U. S. throughout the mid-19th century.
Moore gave a reading and singing performance, with orchestral accompaniment, in 1877 at a Grand Rapids opera house. She managed to interpret jeering as criticism of the orchestra. Moore’s second collection, A Few Choice Words to the Public appeared in 1878, but found few buyers. Moore gave a second public performance in late 1878 at the same opera house.
By then she had figured out that the praise directed to her was false and the jeering sincere. She began by admitting her poetry was “partly full of mistakes” and that “literary is a work very hard to do”. After the poetry and the laughter and jeering in response was over, Moore ended the show by telling the audience:
You have come here and paid twenty-five cents to see a fool; I receive seventy-five dollars, and see a whole houseful of fools.
Afterwards, her husband forbade her to publish any more poetry. Three more poems were eventually published, and she would write poems for friends. In 1880, she also published, in newspaper serialization, a short story “Lost and Found”, a strongly moralistic story about a drunkard, and a novella “Sunshine and Shadow”, a peculiar romance set in the American Revolution.
The ending of “Sunshine and Shadow” was perhaps intended to be self-referential: the farmer facing foreclosure is gratefully rescued by his wife’s publishing her secret cache of fiction.
According to some reports, though, her husband was not grateful, but embarrassed. Shamed or not, he moved the family 100 miles north to Manton in 1882. Moore’s notoriety was known in Manton, but the locals respected her, and did not cooperate with the occasional reporter trying to revisit the past.
They were a successful business couple, he with an orchard and sawmill, she with a store.
Her husband died in 1914. The next year, Julia republished “Sunshine and Shadow” in pamphlet form. She spent much of her widowhood “melancholy”, sitting on her porch. She died quietly in 1920. The news of her death was widely reported, sometimes with a light touch.
Some comparison to William McGonagall is worth making. Unlike McGonagall, Moore commanded a fairly wide variety of meters and forms, albeit like Emily Dickinson the majority of her verse is in the ballad meter.
Like McGonagall, she held a maidenly bluestocking’s allegiance to the Temperance movement, and frequently indited odes to the joys of sobriety.
Most importantly, like McGonagall, she was drawn to themes of accident, disaster, and sudden death; as has been said of A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, in her pages you can count the dead and wounded. Edgar Wilson Nye called her “worse than a Gatling gun”. Here, she is inspired by the Great Chicago Fire:
The great Chicago Fire, friends,
Will never be forgot;
In the history of Chicago
It will remain a darken spot.
It was a dreadful horrid sight
To see that City in flames;
But no human aid could save it,
For all skill was tried in vain.
Her less morbid side is on display when she hymns Temperance Reform Clubs:
Many a man joined the club
That never drank a drachm,
Those noble men were kind and brave
They care not for the slang —
The slang they meet on every side:
“You’re a reform drunkard, too;
You’ve joined the red ribbon brigade,
Among the drunkard crew.”
Despite her acknowledgment that “Literary is a work very difficult to do,” she did not approve of the life of Byron:
The character of “Lord Byron”
Was of a low degree,
Caused by his reckless conduct,
And bad company.
He sprung from an ancient house,
Noble, but poor, indeed.
His career on earth, was marred
By his own misdeeds.