Kahlil Gibran is regarded as the third-best-selling poet of all time after Lao Tzu and William Shakespeare, largely because of his book The Prophet. First published in 1923 it has sold tens of millions of copies worldwide and is among the most translated of all books. Despite these achievements, his early skills lay in drawing and painting which he developed from a young age.
Gibran Khalil Gibran — usually known in English as Kahlil Gibran — was born into a Maronite Christian family on 6 January 1883 in the northern Lebanese village of Bsharri, which at the time was part of Syria, itself part of the Ottoman Empire. Coming from a poor family, Gibran received no formal education. The fortunes of the Gibran family would take a turn for the worse when his father turned to drinking and gambling. He would later find work as a tax collector only to be arrested on charges of fraud.
Without his father, twelve-year-old Gibran, his mother Kamileh and three siblings sailed to New York in 1895, eventually settling in Boston’s South End, a diverse neighbourhood with a large Lebanese community. It is there that Gibran received his first education, the only member of the family to do so. It is said that it was during this time that his name was shortened and its spelling was changed to “Kahlil” on the suggestion of an English teacher.
Gibran continued to draw throughout his teen years and his artwork soon caught the attention of Boston-based artist and photographer Fred Holland Day, who became his first patron and mentor and also introduced him to literature. He went on to return to Lebanon in 1898 to attend a Maronite college, Madrasat Al-Hikmah, where he studied Arabic and French literature before founding a literary magazine.
Following his return to Boston in 1902 upon the news of the death of one of his sisters, he struck up a fateful relationship with Mary Elizabeth Haskell who had a profound impact on his life and works. He studied English literature with her and she also supported his career as an artist, funding his brief stay in Paris where he honed his drawing and painting skills. Before departing for France, Gibran described Haskell as “a she-angel who is ushering me toward a splendid future and paving for me the path to intellectual and financial success.”
It was not long before his reputation was established among art and literary circles with his first work in English. The Madman was published in 1918 by which time New York was his place of residence. The most famous of his works is The Prophet, composed of 26 prose poems centred around a charismatic sage called Al-Mustapha who is due to return home after years in exile but before leaving is asked by his contemporaries about philosophical and spiritual matters concerning life, love and death. The book contains influences not just from Gibran’s Maronite background but also from Islam, in particular Sufism. However, some have interpreted the book’s message to be one opposing the more dogmatic tendencies of organised religion. During the 1960s, for example, The Prophet became known as the “bible” for the counterculture movement.
Gibran would go on to write over 30 literary works in English and Arabic and paint more than 700 pictures, watercolours and drawings. Most of these have either been ignored or overlooked in the West, having been shipped back to his native Lebanon after his death on 10 April 1931, aged 48. In his last years, like his father, he took to heavy drinking and died of cirrhosis of the liver.
Kahlil Gibran remains arguably the most prolific Arab artist and writer of the early twentieth century. He is widely credited with ushering in a renaissance of modern Arabic literature, especially prose poetry, having departed from the long-standing traditional conventions steeped in Bedouin poetry.
Crucially, Gibran’s works in English not only broadened his readership in the West but also led to a wider mainstream appreciation of poetry itself, which helped cement his place among the greatest poets. British author, historian and Arabist Robert Irwin perhaps articulated it best when he once wrote of Gibran in the London Review of Books that, “He seems to be a favourite poet of those who don’t like poetry.”