The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

IV. The New South: Lanier

§ 15. Tabb

It is individuality of style that strikingly distinguishes another Reconstruction poet who could never forget the Lost Cause and who sought solace in the realms of poesy. John Banister Tabb (1845–1909) was born and reared at The Forest, a plantation near Richmond. The only blemish on the bright untroubled period of his boyhood with a loved mother and kind tutors was weakness of the eyes, which at the age of twelve an occulist pronounced incurable. His youthful passions were poetry and music, yet when the conflict came he soon forsook these nymphs to fly to arms and war. In 1862 he entered the navy as a captain’s clerk and after two years of service was captured on a blockade runner and confined to Point Lookout Prison. There Sidney Lanier’s flute-playing made the two men firm friends for life. Unlike Lanier, however, Tabb could not forget the prison and the victorious Northern armies which dispersed his wealth. In the blank years following the war he first studied music and then resigned himself to teaching. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1884, but remained in St. Charles College at Ellicott City, Maryland, till his death, for as teacher of literature, especially of his favourite poets, Poe, Keats, and Shelley, he was eminently successful. His total blindness in 1906 he bore with equanimity until his death in 1909.

His career reveals the character of his mind. He was detached from life and sought to pierce below its aspects to the soul beneath. Nature, to be sure, he loved. His memory dwelt fondly on the Virginia scenery of his boyhood, the rolling slopes and “smooth-sliding” streams, the kildee and the wood-robin of that Utopian period. In Maryland he liked to take walks and come back with flowers and leaves. More than thirty birds are celebrated in his poems. Yet even when they stir the deepest emotion these voices of nature speak to him of some facet of human life. The call of the robin in the waning daylight reminds him of the shadowy but inevitable approach of Death:

  • Come, ere oblivion speed to me, flying
  • Swifter than thou.
  • It is his underlying philosophy that God speaks to man through the multiform aspects of nature; that
  • Love, of sweet Nature the Lord,
  • Hath fashioned each manifold chord
  • To utter His visible Word;
  • that the poet acts merely as interpreter. Indeed, so intent is Tabb on the thought symbolized that he comes to find loveliness in nature only as its aspects may be interpreted. More than that, everywhere in his unformulated but profoundly-felt philosophy,—and not in mere figure of speech,—all the outwardly beautiful objects in nature live and breathe and have their being in God as much as we. Almost might St. Francis of Assisi have written Brotherhood:
  • Knew not the Sun, sweet Violet,
  • The while he gleaned the snow,
  • That thou in darkness sepulchred,
  • Wast slumbering below?
  • Or spun a splendor of surprise
  • Around him to behold thee rise?
  • Saw not the Star, sweet Violet,
  • What time a drop of dew
  • Let fall his image from the sky
  • Into thy deeper blue?
  • Nor waxed he tremulous and dim
  • When rival Dawn supplanted him?
  • And dreamest thou, sweet Violet,
  • That I, the vanished Star,
  • The Dewdrop, and the morning Sun,
  • Thy closest kinsmen are—
  • So near that, waking or asleep,
  • We each and all thine image keep?
  • Quite in keeping with this detachment from mundane affairs, this preoccupation with the abstract relationships of life, is Tabb’s absorption in the dogmas of the Church. That they should have engaged his imagination so deeply reveals the strength of his other-worldliness, the extent to which he fled from the ordinary interests of men. One human feeling, however, he displayed in a beautiful degree—friendship. His affection for Sidney Lanier in particular was one of the bright strands in his life. Their few months together in prison reveal an affinity between them that was not dimmed by the lapse of years.

    Yet, as we shall see, their poetic styles were in sharp contrast. An English critic has compared “the long, voluminous, rushing flow of Lanier with the minute, delicately carved work” of Tabb rather to the credit of Tabb, who, he says, “piping on his flute can do things which Lanier’s great four-manual organ could never accomplish.” It surely will be conceded that Tabb’s poetic manner is as individual as Lanier’s. Yet his first poems in 1883, some nineteen lyrics and a few sonnets, reveal little of this originality or indeed of poetical promise. The shortest poems were in ten lines, whereas his later style tends to quatrains. Working in such small compass, he has polished his technique to a point near perfection. The diction is of extreme simplicity. The measures flow on without a ripple. The figures are suggested in the most concise phrasing. In short, his poems are a series of the most delicate cameos. Contrast and endless comparison are the basis of his style, which is largely coloured by the frequency of scriptural allusions, the constant introduction and personification of abstract ideas, and the subtle intermixture of symbolism. He was so wrapped up in his poetic fancies that his figures often pass over into conceits. Who else could give to the spiritual inquiry “Is thy servant a dog?” such a turn as this:

  • So must he be who, in the crowded street,
  • Where shameless Sin and flaunting Pleasure meet,
  • Amid the noisome footprints finds the sweet
  • Faint vestiges of Thy feet.
  • In his Child’s Verse the effect is natural enough, for his puns, no matter how far fetched they appear to the sober eye, there strike one as flashes of wit. But in serious poetry the effect is different. The mind hardly has time to link the symbol and the interpretation. The compression does not permit full grasp of the significance.

    In spite of these shortcomings, however, we must concede that Father Tabb, though he lived constantly in a rarefied religious atmosphere, far removed from the daily interests of man, yet was endowed with an ear sensitive to those overtones which escape most men and that he was often visited with those intuitions which reveal nooks of beauty, aspects of cheer. Though his lute was of few strings, he played it with exquisite tone.