Tabb’s Poetry IX

A Hairbreadth

’Tis in the twinkle of escape
   That all our safety lies.
Of danger—whatsoe’er the shape—
   The nearness naught implies:
This side is life; that side, a breath
   Of deviation, instant death.

’Tis in the present I am free
   The mental die to cast;
The future yet of mastery
   Is palsied as the past;
Between, the breathless balance still
   Awaits the hesitating will.


            Reason, have done!
            Of thee I’ll none
While face to face I see the sun.

            Be thine the ray
            To point the way
In darkness: but, behold, ’tis day.

            Should faith divine
            Forbear to shine,
Again I’ll place my hand in thine.

            For in thy sight
            To walk aright
Is prelude to the perfect light.

The Sisters

The waves forever move;
The hills forever rest:
Yet each the heavens approve,
And love alike hath blessed
A Martha’s household care,
A Mary’s cloistered prayer.


   From flame to snow—
            E’en so
   Must all perfection flow.
      Each pure desire
      Is fledged with fire
   And needs must grow
      From dark to light,
      Till, passion past,
   Transfigured in its flight,
      It stand at last
Unblushing on the topmost height
      With sister souls in white,
   To follow still the Lamb
      Wherever He may go.


Like the manna, mute as snow,
Swift the moments come & go,
Each sufficient for the needs
Of the multitude it feeds;
One to all, and all to one,
Superfluity to none,
Ever dying but to give
Life whereon alone we live.

John B. Tabb



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“A Hairbreadth”: Later Lyrics, p. 102; Poetry, p. 222. April 1900. Naught means an evil or wicked thing; palsied means impotent.

“Epiphany”: Later Poems, p. 25; Poetry, p. 224. 1910. Epiphany: from the Greek epiphaneia meaning manifestation; thus, a revelation, especially a sudden one. Understand I’ll none as I’ll have none; that is, I’ll have none of reason or I’ll have nothing to do with reason.

“The Sisters”: Lyrics, p. 17; Poetry, p. 95. 1897. Cloistered: enclosed or sequestered; a cloister is a place of religious seclusion, especially a convent or monastery, or some enclosed area in either. The poem alludes to the Gospel story of the sisters Martha and Mary of Bethany, Luke 10:38-42; Catholic tradition often identifies this Mary with St. Mary Magdalene, but this identification is not much more than conjecture. According to his niece, Jennie Masters Tabb, this poem is an answer to the remark of a Protestant who told Father Tabb that he “could not see the use of the contemplative sisterhoods of the Catholic Church”.

“Purification”: Poetry, p. 235. Undated. The last two lines allude to Revelation 14:4. This poem is not included in Father Tabb among the previously uncollected or unpublished poems, and does not appear to have been published in a collection until Poetry.

“Moments”: Later Poems, p. 16; Poetry, p. 138. 1910. The poem alludes to the Old Testament story of God providing the Israelites with manna from heaven for their daily food; see Exodus 16, especially verses 18-21.

A convert to the Catholic faith, Rev. John Banister Tabb (1845-1909) was a priest of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, and Professor of English at St. Charles’ College, Ellicott City, Maryland. Poems selected, arranged, and annotated by E.L. Core.
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