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Despite being one of the most renowned writers in the world, the life of the poet Kahlil Gibran is somewhat shrouded in mystery. Who was the real man behind some of the most captivating poetry of the early 20th century?
In this article, we will explore his humble beginnings and the extraordinary events that led him to become a legendary figure in literature - the third best-selling poet of all time.
Gibran was born in Bsharri, in a mountainous village in what is now modern-day Lebanon on January 6th, 1883. He was one of four children. When he was eight years old, he father was imprisoned for embezzlement, so his mother decided to move Kahlil and his siblings to the United States, where her brother had emigrated .
Gibran age 12, photograph by F Holland Day
They settled in Boston’s South End in a large Syrian community. In a stroke of good fortune, twelve-year-old Kahlil entered the art school at Dennison House, a tenement house for recently arrived immigrants. The art teacher noticed his obvious talent and introduced him to several influential people, including F. Holland Day, an artist and publisher who would strongly influence his creative pursuits and introduce him further into Boston’s artistic circles.
At the age of 15, Kahlil was sent back home to study at College de la Sagesse. It would be the only time he return to Lebanon in his life. There he would study Arabic literature and French. His first literary foray was a student magazine he created with some fellow students. After graduating at age eighteen, he went to Paris to study painting, as well travelling through Europe on his way there.
Sadly, a year later tragedy would strike his family. One of his sisters and his half-brother died within a year of each from tuberculosis, and his mother would die a few months later from cancer. His older sister Mariana would take him in and provide for them both.
sketches of Mary Haskell
At age 21, Kahlil held his first exhibition of drawings at his friend Holland Day’s studio. Through this, he was introduced to Mary Haskell, who would become his close friend and benefactor, supporting him financially for the rest of his life. At one point they were engaged, but this didn’t last. They would never marry but they did remain very close throughout his life. As an immigrant, it is likely that society would not have accepted her marriage to him, risking her profession and standing in upper-middle class Boston society. There was also a ten-year age gap between them (her being older), which would have also been frowned upon back then.
Around this time, he met the editor of the Al-Mohajar (“The Emigrant”), a New-York based Arabic literary journal, and began publishing articles. Soon followed his first published work, A Profile of the Art of Music.
The Triangle, 1918
At age 25, Haskell funded his studies at the Academie Julian in Paris, where he studied art and joined the studio of Jean-Paul Laurens, painter and sculptor. Six months into his studies, he left the Academie to work in the studio of Symbolist painter Pierre Marcel-Beronneau. He began a series of portraits in pencil depicting his artistic heroes of the day.
At this time he was also introduced to some Syrian political dissidents, who worked to free Syria from Ottoman control. This political awakening would remain a primary concern of his work and art for the rest of his life.
At this time, painting was the focus of his pursuits. Many of his Symbolist paintings can be seen in museums around the world. He produced over 700 paintings and drawings, painting figures such as August Rodin, Carl Jung and Claude Debussy.
The building housing Gibran's studio in the West Village
After 2 years in Paris, he returned to the United States. Having completed his education in Europe, he entered New York society as a sophisticated and cosmopolitan artist. He joined a Syrian independence group called the Golden Links Society. He was now firmly based in New York, although he spent considerable periods of time with his surviving sister Marianne in Boston and at the nearby Massachusetts coast.
He continued to publish in literary journals and published several more books, all in Arabic. His reputation grew through his friendship with American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder. Ryder saw an exhibition of his drawings, which impressed him. Kahlil happened to be one of Ryder’s last visitors before his death, having written him a poem a few months before. This poem would be reproduced in part in a tribute to Ryder published in several major newspapers across the United States. Suddenly, Kahlil’s reputation grew.
The Pen League, with Gibran second from left
Perhaps in consideration of his new found fame, Kahlil would publish his first work in English in 1918. This work, “The Madman”, was followed by a collection of his drawings. At this time he also founded The Pen League, an Arabic language literary movement, with his fellow writers Nasib Arida, Abd al-Masih and Mikhail Naimy. This group of writers and intellectuals were linked by their common heritage, as emigrants from the Near East.
Twenty Drawings, published in 1919
To describe Kahlil’s work as just poetry would be limiting. He wrote fables, short stories, political treatises, hundreds of letters, plays and many more. He writing style could considered part of the Romantic movement, but there is no question that he was a singular figure. He eschewed classic Arabic in favour of the vernacular spoken around him in his hometown of Bsharri, just as his use of English was heavily influenced by his early years learning English in South Boston.
Raised in a Maronite Christian family, the Bible would be a huge source of inspiration, especially the parables in the New Testament. He also greatly valued the works of William Blake, both his writings and art. Some of this other influences would be the Syrian poet Francis Marrash and the American writer Walt Whitman. In both of these writers, he was moved by their themes of the universality of man.
Despite his literary career taking off, Kahlil was battling with increasingly poor health, which initially presented as heart problems. He was ordered by doctors to give up his work for a period of time and to leave the city for a prolonged stay by the sea. He moved to Scituate, a seaside town in Massachusetts. Despite his doctors admonishment, this was a very prolific time for him, which he credited with some of his best poems.
The mysterious Prophet, as illustrated by Gibran
In 1923, his most famous work to date would be published. The Prophet was a success despite a lack of positive reviews from critics. Kahlil’s work has always held an uneasy position with critics, who find his work difficult to classify. The Prophet is a collection of 26 prose poems, delivered as sermons. In it, a prophet is asked to share his wisdom on the big questions of life before he leaves and returns to his home country. Each passage is illustrated by Gibran, as well as the famous cover portrait of the titular mysterious Prophet, which he said came to him complete in a dream.
He continued to write articles for Arabic journals, founded a new periodical called The New East and two more books. However, his health declined severely and he continually refused medical treatment. He smoked heavily and ate very poorly, reported surviving on dozens of cups of Lebanese coffee each day, and staying up late into the night writing and painting. He would be admitted to hospital on April 10, 1931 and would die that same day. His cause of death would be cirrhosis of the liver tuberculosis and cancer. He was forty-eight years old.
Mary Haskell, drawing by Gibran
Kahlil had never married, although he had several long-term relationships with women, including that of his patron and friend, Mary Haskell. Their relationship would strongly influence The Prophet, with Kahlil later stating to her that “there’s nothing in them that hasn’t come from our talks”.
His wish was that he would be buried in his hometown in Bsharri, Lebanon. He was interred there and the Mar Sarkis Monastery was purchased in his name and is now the Gibran Museum. The royalties from his works are willed to the town to fund different civic pursuits.
Elvis' annotated copy of The Prophet, gifted to his bodyguard
While his work has never faded entirely into obscurity, it certainly experienced its biggest resurgence many years after his death. The Prophet, his most famous work, has remained in print since its initial publication. It became a cult classic during the Hippie movement of the 1960s, selling 300,000 copies a year. It is now in the top ten most translated books ever, and one of the best-selling books of the 20th century. It has been sited by a disparate number of artists and performers, including Johnny Cash, John Lennon and Elvis Presley.
In his home country he is considered a counter-culture rebel, who rallied against the system and the oppression of the Arab world. His writing stirred up a lot of resentment from leaders, and his books were burnt in Beirut. Kahlil Gibran's life journey, marked by tragedy and artistic exploration, led to a diverse body of work transcending conventional categories and making Gibran a literary icon.
It wasn't life wasn't half-lived; it wove a tapestry of experiences in literary history, leaving an enduring imprint on readers worldwide.
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