A Hairbreadth

This poem teeters on the edge of mortality. “A Hairbreadth” focuses on the split-second decisions humans face that determine whether we live or die. The speaker exhorts readers to live in the “breathless balance,” the present, to make the choices that lead toward “the twinkle of escape.”

Poet John Banister Tabb lived through the Civil War as a Confederate Navy sailor, his daily life one of perilous choices. A gifted pianist, this son of a wealthy Virginia family enlisted, then during a battle was taken prisoner. He spent eight months at the prison camp at Point Lookout, where he befriended musician and poet Sidney Lanier.

After Tabb was released from prison camp, he began practicing piano seven hours a day, and started teaching at St. Paul’s School in Baltimore. Influenced by a priest at St. Paul’s, Tabb converted to Catholicism.

In 1875, he started his seminary studies at Ellicott City’s St. Charles College, then began teaching English and Greek at the school, which sat on 253 acres of land donated by Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Father Tabb, whose eyesight began failing at an early age, taught at the school until shortly before his death in 1909.

The poetry of Father Tabb, as he was known, became wildly popular, and published in Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Weekly, and even The Cosmopolitan. He published four collections of poetry while he was alive. His book Later Poems was published in 1910, just after he died.


On March 16, 1911, a fire started in the cellar under the chapel at St. Charles College. A hairbreadth of luck allowed all of the200 faculty and students to escape, but the college was destroyed, including priceless manuscripts, art, and sacred objects. The college was rebuilt in Catonsville, and all that remains are the ruins of the recreation hall, which have been incorporated into a garden in the Terra Maria community.

A Hairbreadth
by John B. Tabb

’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.


“A Hairbreadth” is from The Poetry of Father Tabb, published in 1928. This poem is in the public domain.

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