March 22, 2012

Birth of Father Tabb: Rebel unredeemed

John Banister Tabb was born into a wealthy family near Richmond, Virginia on March 22, 1845. As a boy, he quickly became enamored with books, though he had difficulty reading them when his sight began to fail at age 14. Even so, he enlisted in the Confederate Navy at the start of the Civil War; he was imprisoned for eight months in a Union camp alongside Sidney Lanier. The two shared their love of both literature and music and became fast friends (Tabb later wrote a four-line poem to "Lanier's Flute"). After the war, he called himself "a Rebel unredeemed and unredeemable." After the war, he became a teacher, but he is best-remembered as "Father Tabb": the Catholic priest who also wrote poetry, earning him the nickname "The Priest-Poet."

Father Tabb published a modest 500 copies of his first collection of poems, Lyrics, in March 1897 and was surprised by the response. Another five hundred were printed right away, with 500 more the next month. The book collects an astonishing 177 poems, though many are only a few lines (the selection of sonnets are among the longest). Many, as might be imagined, are religious in theme, there are several dedicated to musicians and authors he admired, and some focus on nature or the sea, as in "The Rain and the Dew":

"Thou hast fallen," said the Dewdrop
   To a sister drop of rain,
"But wilt thou, wedded with the dust,
   In banishment remain?"

"Nay, Dewdrop, but anon with thee —
   The lowlier born than I —
Uplifted shall I seek again
   My native home, the sky."

And here's one more short one, the opening poem of his Later Lyrics (1902) titled "To a Songster":

Little bird, I'd be
A Poet like to thee,
Singing my native song—
Brief to the ear, but long
To Love and Memory.

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