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A Gentle Poet

The story of the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran.

Modern skyscrapers tower over churches and a library nearly a century old in Copley Square, Boston. In the midst stands a quiet sentinel, a bronze and granite memorial to Kahlil Gibran. In recognition of his poetic and artistic contributions the memorial reads in part: “A grateful city acknowledges the greater harmony among men and strengthened universality of spirit given by Kahlil Gibran to the people of the world.”

Kahlil Gibran was born in 1883 to a poor family in the village of Basharri in northern Lebanon. As a child Kahlil never received a formal primary education. He desired to be alone with his thoughts and dreams rather than play with others his age. A neighbor, Selim Dahir, befriended him and made a significant impact on his early development. Dahir prompted and fostered the inquisitive inclinations of Gibran’s naturally bright and sensitive intellect. Even as a youngster, Kahlil was not just an idle daydreamer but an individual who could see in the world about him great potential. He saw a capacity for beauty within each individual and he sought to bring meaning to the lives of others. Most of his adult life he worked diligently to see the potential goodness of the world become a reality.

As did most people in Lebanon at the turn of the century, the Gibran’s experienced economic hardship. Kahlil’s father, never a good provider, subjected his family to public disdain when he became involved in a political scandal. When Kahlil was 12 his mother journeyed to America with her four children. Joining the immigrant community from Lebanon and Syria in Boston the family worked at learning foreign customs and a difficult language. The indomitable spirit of Gibran’s mother helped the struggling family survive. In her own quiet way, Kahlil’s mother fostered his growth and movement beyond the Syrian enclave to Boston’s artistic and literary community. He gravitated with other children to the Denison Settlement House, a neighborhood center for social and cultural activities. Here Gibran’s talent as an artist was first acknowledged and brought to the attention of sponsors. Chief among these was Fred Holland Day. Day, a publisher, often photographed Kahlil and introduced the young Gibran to literature. It was perhaps from his association with Day that the seeds for a freer, unorthodox type of poetry was first planted.

At the age of 15 Gibran returned to Lebanon to study in Beirut. A headstrong and independent student, Kahlil became immersed in Arabic literature and developed a keen consciousness and a thorough appreciation for the Bible. Four years later, he returned to America ready to devote himself to art and writing.

He began writing in his native language for an Arabic newspaper employing a more colloquial style than that of classical Arabic literature. Especially popular with the thousands of Arab immigrants who had settled in the new world, his Arabic writing also found an eager audience among the people of Lebanon. Works such as Spirits Rebellious and Nymphs of the Valley marked him as the leading and most influential of a group of authors known as the Mahjar writers. His early works seemed to be influenced by the American transcendentalist movement and the Romantic literature of the West.

In 1902 Gibran journeyed to Paris for three years to study art. It was to be his last trip abroad. Upon his return to the United States he spent a year in Boston before moving to New York where he would live and work for the remainder of his life. He often referred to his New York studio as “the Hermitage.” The name evinced the quiet privacy that so characterized Gibran from his earliest childhood. In New York he continued to be active in Arabic literary and art circles.

He eventually published major works in English. Among these were Jesus the Son of Man, Sand and Foam and the Forerunner. In the first period of his writing career he strived to give himself and the new world to the Lebanese. His writing was unorthodox at times and even challenged by the established social and religious norms of his homeland. Some thought it rebellious. In his later years a more seasoned Gibran looked at the world in an optimistic manner.

In the midst of this latter part of Gibran’s writing career his best known work, The Prophet was published. Selling several million copies around the world it has been translated into many languages. The appeal of his writing stems from the spiritual nature of it. In simple but beautiful language, the optimistic tone is a remainder of man’s innate goodness.

Just as Lebanon is known as the gateway of the East, so have Gibran’s works offered a literary and artistic bridge between east and west with their mystical appeal.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s there was a renewed interest in Eastern religions and philosophy in the west. In the midst of this tide, college students discovered Gibran and most especially his work The Prophet. He was quoted and read then perhaps more than at any time during his life. Unfortunately the scope of this new found popularity seemed to neglect his art in favor of his writing. Perhaps Gibran was the only Lebanese poet that these students would ever read but he had a way of making them feel at home with his work.

An interviewer for a New York newspaper once noted that Gibran had an “unusual common sense and sympathy which transcend differences and enables him to understand so well each environment in which he finds himself.” Gibran was powerful without being intrusive. He was concerned with essentials, the ultimate questions of thought and being. He reflected upon the deep mysteries that tugged at his soul. His writing and artwork gently prod one to see that which is good within all.

The correct spelling of Gibran’s first name was altered by a Boston English teacher. Thus Khalil became Kahlil. In Arabic the name means “the good companion.” Gibran died in 1931 at the age of 48 and his body was returned to Lebanon for a hero’s welcome.

The memorial in Boston quotes Gibran, “It was in my heart to help a little because I was helped much.” Because of that, we are indeed enriched.

John Mahoney, a freelance writer, lives in Boston.

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