Julia Zitella Cocke (1840-1929) was a prolific poet during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During her lifetime, she produced more than 300 poems, several essays and short stories, and 11 musical compositions. She covered a variety of subjects in her poetry, but her best works were inspired by her native South.
Zitella Cocke Portrait, ca. 1860 Born on November 10, 1840, in Marion, Perry County, Zitella Cocke was the oldest of Woodson St. George and Mary Binion Cocke’s eight children. Her father, a descendent of an influential Virginia family, moved to Marion in the 1830s and became a planter. Her mother, descended from French Huguenots, was an accomplished scholar, musician, and linguist. Thus, the Cocke children were encouraged to develop their musical and scholarly skills and interests. Cocke would later recall her mother playing Beethoven on the piano accompanied by artist Nicola Marschall on the violin. Mary Cocke closely oversaw the education of her children by personally instructing them in many subjects, including music and Latin, and using tutors for others. As a child, Zitella wrote verses and left them under her mother’s breakfast plate for her to review. At the age of seven, she completed “The Mimosa Tree,” her first poem. Cocke entered Judson Female Institute at age six and graduated with honors at sixteen. Following her graduation, she travelled to Europe and continued her study of music.
Cocke returned to Alabama with the expectation that she would return to life as she knew it. That promise was interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War. Just a month before Alabama seceded from the Union, Cocke was selected to present a regimental flag to the Marion Rifles at a ceremony on December 13, 1860. In front of a crowd gathered on the main lawn at Judson College, Cocke delivered an eloquent speech that was reprinted in the December 15, 1860, Marion Tri-Weekly Commonwealth newspaper; it included some of her poetic verses.
The excitement of the celebration soon dissipated as the war progressed and deprivations began to affect daily life in the South. Cocke accepted a position in Judson’s music department to provide her family with income. She assumed the responsibility of supporting her family in the absence of two of her brothers, who were serving in the Confederate army, and the ill health of her parents. To supplement her teacher’s salary, Cocke began publishing poems in periodicals. Like many families in the South, the Cocke family lost a son and much of their wealth during the Civil War. In the 1870s, she left Judson and taught music in several cities, including Nashville and Chicago, before settling in Baltimore in the 1880s. There, she gave private lessons in music and German and wrote musical compositions.
Zitella Cocke, ca. 1890s In the early 1890s, she moved to Boston. In addition to writing essays, short stories, and poems, she also translated works for the Boston Public Library. She had always composed poems for personal enjoyment, but in Boston she turned her hobby into a successful career. In addition to the publication of three volumes of poetry, she contributed pieces to magazines such as The New England Magazine, Lippincott’s Magazine, The Youth’s Companion, and Harper’s Bazaar. Her poems display inspirations ranging from nature, to religion, history, society, and grief. Her works generally received favorable criticism throughout the nation and abroad. Her poetry compilations sold well except, ironically, in the South. Cocke believed her books didn’t sell well in the South because of the hardships many endured during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Despite this, her popularity as an author provided Cocke with the means to support herself and to travel extensively.
Cocke returned to Mobile in 1918 and resided in the Mobile Benevolent Home until 1922, when she moved to the Gadsden home of her niece, Molly Cocke Denman. Her eyesight began to fail and her health was failing as well, but she continued to write poems by dictating verses to others. On December 3, 1929, Zitella Cocke died after a brief bout of pneumonia. Her body was returned to Marion, where a service was held in St. Wilfred’s Episcopal Church, and she was buried in Marion Cemetery among her family.
Selected Works by Julia Zitella Cocke
Doric Reed (1895)
The Grasshoppers’ Hop and Other Verses (1901)
Cherokee Rose and Other Southern Poems (1907)
Beck, Jennifer L. “An Old Maid of the Much Approved Style: Julia Zitella Cocke, Alabama Poet, Musician and Teacher.” M.L.A. thesis., Auburn University at Montgomery, Montgomery, Alabama, 2003.
Beck, Jennifer L. “Zitella Cocke: Alabama’s Forgotten Poet.” Alabama Heritage 77 (Summer 2005): 18-25
Eborn, Mary Lula. “An Appreciation of the Life and Writings of Zitella Cocke.” Master’s thesis, George Peabody College of Teachers, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, 1931.
Owen, Marie Bankhead. “Zitella Cocke, Poet.” Alabama Historical Quarterly 1 (Winter 1930): 422-23.
Zitella Cocke Manuscripts, Judson College Archives, Bowling Library, Judson College, Marion, Alabama.
Zitella Cocke Papers, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.