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Friday, April 19, 2013

Kahlil Gibran

Khalil Gibran Self-portrait, 1911
As I've noted many times, creative urges find many outlets. Some write, some paint, some carve, some design, some compose. In rare cases, a single artist may be involved in two or more of these endeavors, sometimes with fairly equal talent displayed in each. Michelangelo painted and carved marble, but he also wrote sonnets. Leonardo painted, invented, wrote scientific treatises, and designed parade floats. Picasso painted, sculpted, wrote plays, designed theatrical sets, and displayed numerous other creative talents. It's difficult to say whether Kahlil Gibran was a poet who painted or a painter there such a word as poeted? (My spell checker thinks not.) 

A self-portrait in words.
If you came of age in the 1960s, you've undoubtedly heard of his book, perhaps even read, The Prophet. Originally published in 1923; it has been translated into 40 languages; it's in its 163rd printing, having never been out of print, in fact; and has sold over one-hundred million copies. Even today the book sells 5,000 copies per week. In the heady world of poetry, only Shakespeare and the Chinese poet, Lao-Tzu have sold more. I'm no poet and have never been one to read much poetry, so I'm not going to pretend to know much about poetry or Kahlil Gibran's brand of prosaic poetry. I do know something about art so I'll limit myself to his painting.

Divine World, Kahlil Gibran

Actually, Gibran took up painting before writing (I started to say poeting). Born in 1883 in what is today, northern Lebanon (then under Ottoman control). His mother was the daughter of a Catholic priest (rare, but it happens), his father her third husband. Born into deep poverty, what little schooling he got came at the hands of other priests who taught him the Bible and Arabic and Syriac languages. His father was something of a political scoundrel, in and out of prison on a regular basis for embezzlement to pay off gambling debts. In 1895 his mother brought Kahlil, his brother, and sisters to the U.S., settling in Boston's South End Lebanese community where she worked at various forms of menial labor, a single mother providing for her family. It was in Boston, at the age of twelve, that Kahlil learned English and first studied art. There too, he came to know various avant-garde writers, photographers, and publishers, one of whom used some of his drawings to illustrate book covers.

Portrait of the Artist's Mother, Kahlil Gibran
Fearing he was becoming too "Americanized," Kamila Gibran sent her fifteen-year-old son back to Lebanon to absorb his own, native culture. There, in Beirut, Kahlil completed his education, returning to Boston in 1902 shortly before his brother and sister died of tuberculosis followed by his mother's death from cancer a short time later. In Boston, in 1904, Gibran first displayed his art. It was during this exhibition he met and fell in love with a school headmistress some ten years his senior. They had a discrete affair and twice he proposed to her. Twice she turned him down, though they continued their friendship the rest of their lives. Rejected, and to relieve his sister of the burden of supporting him, Kahlil journeyed off to Paris to once more study art. There, for the next two years, Kahlil also began writing in Arabic. His first book of poetry, The Madman, was published in English in 1918. The Prophet followed in 1923 while Garden of the Prophet was published after his death in 1931. He was 48.

He-She, H.C. Berann. The painting is sometimes
labeled, Lovers, and a few other titles as well.
Kahlil Gibran's art is very much like his poetry, visually rich, somewhat erotic, philosophical, and deeply imbued with a metaphysical sense of life now, and in the hereafter. It deals in large part with love, marriage, children, and giving. There's also the expression of sensual joy, sorrow, friendship, good and evil, prayer, pleasure, beauty, religion, and death. The Prophet devotes a chapter to each of these eternal elements. In reading his work, one has the feeling Gibran sought to say in words that which his art could not. His words below from The Prophet, regarding love bear this out:

When love beckons to you follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him, though as dreams garden. For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.
Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire,
All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life's heart.
But if in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love's threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed; for love is sufficient unto love.
When you love you should not say, "God is in my heart," but rather, I am in the heart of God."
And think not you can direct the course of love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.
Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love's ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.


  1. I think the last picture is not of Gibran's work, please indicate primary sources.

  2. You're right. The painting in question (titled He-She) is apparently by an artist named H.C. Berann, though I could find only one or two sources with this attribution. The mix-up seems to derive from some similarities to Gibran's work and the close identification of the painting to the poem above. (To further complicate matters, the painting has sometimes been given other titles.) Most sources I found either falsely attribute the painting to Gibran or are ambiguous in suggesting it is his work. Thanks for writing; sorry for the error.