In 1950, the fabled Seven Gables Book shop in Manhattan printed a special Christmas card of 500 copies. The card contained three printed pages. The first had an introduction by the scholar Thomas H. Johnson.
Johnson, who would become the editor of the Harvard edition of Emily Dickinson’s work, wrote “Casual readers as well as critics have always been struck by the curious resemblance in the verses of Emily Dickinson and John B. Tabb.”
Today’s reader might be curious why Tabb, a Catholic priest and poet teaching in St. Charles College in Ellicott City, a suburb of Baltimore, was compared to Dickinson. Yet, in 1950 it wasn’t an outrageous comparison to link Dickinson’s lyrical genius with the lapidary brilliance of Fr. Tabb’s poems.
In fact Johnson was generous in praise of Fr. Tabb. He explains that they both experimented with form in the decades after the Civil War, and there were other grounds of comparison too. “Both were acutely sensitive to nature and religion, and wrote in a manner that allies them with Seventeenth Century Metaphysicals… Both are intense, epigrammatic, cryptic, paradoxical.”
Today the pairing of the two would draw immediate puzzlement; everyone knows Emily Dickinson, but who is Fr. John Tabb?
The obvious question is what do the poems of John Banister Tabb, a one-time Southern soldier in the Civil War, Episcopalian- born aristocrat from a prominent slave holding family, convert to Catholicism and Catholic priest have in common with the Belle of Amherst?
Born into one of Virginia’s oldest and wealthiest families on March 22, 1845 (he died in November 1909) John Tabb’s life took in a lot of territory of American history and ended at the doorway of the modernists movement of the early 20th century.
One of Dickinson’s connections with Tabb is that they both had major work published in 1894, and both books shot from the obscurity of their authors to national acclaim and curiosity.
Emily Dickinson’s posthumous fame continued to grow so that she is now one of the celebrated figures of world literature, while John Banister Tabb has become an obscure footnote to the era. He poked some good-natured fun at himself in this wry poem “Too Late Sighed a poet when his fame/ After fifty winters came/ And the editors were asking for his rhyme…”
As late as 1950 Fr. Tabb’s admirers still had high hopes that he would ascend to his rightful place as a poet for the ages. There is no doubt that many of his readers were part of the emergent Catholic audience of late 19th and early 20th century America. There was already a large system of schools in place and a very well-educated clergy and lay readership. His audience had crossed over to the larger Christian audience fascinated by his sometimes stunning and intricate little poems.
Fr Tabb, a bit of a recluse himself, found his literary star at age 49 after years of obscurity teaching in a Catholic school. He was proud of his work (and his sales) and kept close tabs on his reviews. His literary celebrity was small but growing.
One of Fr. Tabb’s enigmatic little poems wasn’t written as a commentary about him and Dickinson but it serves to set up their peculiar resemblance.
One dream the bird and blossom dreamed
of Love, the whole night long:
Yet twain its revelation seemed
in fragrance and in song.
Like all of Tabb’s work (and Dickinson’s too) you might have to read it twice before it opens up in your mind.
Tabb was stunned by what he called “The All in All”, and Dickinson gave it the name “Circumference” in her intensely personal vision. Both of them believed that the poet could re-create that experience in words. Words shared in eternity too. Every shining moment was an open door to God and wonder and the surprises of the Universe.
I discovered Fr. Tabb’s poems in the Fairfield University library a few years back and he has been a constant companion ever since. His Catholic voice and its concerns still speak powerfully. Call it a sacramental vision if you like; a way of viewing the world that conceives of God as present in all things and in all moments.
Here is Tabb at his best in a meditation of his own double vocation as priest and poet. It has the lyrical, verdant tone of the Psalms when the name of God was new upon the world. It could only have come from long and silent watching and a profound disposition of priest and poet.
Like as a brook that all night long
Sings, as at noon, a bubble-song
To sleep’s unheeding ear,
The poet to himself must sing,
When none but god is listening
The lullaby to hear.
Tabb’s solitude is happier than Dickinson’s because he spends it with the intuition of God’s eternal presence. There is always more to Dickinson because her doubts about the Almighty opened up metaphors and extended her poems into dark corners and terrible silences. Tabb knew that same silence, but in it he heard the song of God and was comforted.
They were both poets of the soul who celebrated the shining, transient radiance of nature. Both were blinded by mere existence and overpowered by moments of mystical affinity with Creation and what it implied about God and man.
Fr. Tabb had once been the hope of many in the Catholic community to notch one of their own voices into American literature and to remain a clarion call to the ages. Why after such lofty beginnings did Tabb’s poetry fall into obscurity? What does his rise and fall say about Catholic culture and the hope for a catholic literature in the American tradition? Was it his good luck to be paired with Dickinson or a comparison to hang around his neck?
Fr. Tabb isn’t a poet for the ages, unless the ages retain an interest in the history of American poetry and the story of the Catholic voice in the New World. Tabb’s claim for his poetry is less grand than Dickinson’s, more monkish, and at ease with its role.
Because he believes that God really is present in our lives and listening, he can sing in the dark. At noon everyone can freely hear the song of the brook, but in the evening the brook sings to the lone priest in his solitude. So too the priest/poet must sing to God. What he sings is a lullaby, a child’s song of faith and comfort – and the embrace of a loving parent.
Barry Wallace, a retired English teacher and former Department Chair at Fairfield Prep, is writing a book on Fr. John Tabb.