Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet comprises twenty-seven poetic essays on various aspects of life, preceded by an introduction and followed by a farewell. In the farewell, the Prophet, newly born, promises to return to his people after a momentary rest upon the wind. Thus, the continuity of life is implied—the circle of birth, death, and rebirth.
The Prophet belongs to a unique group of works that include Edward FitzGerald’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1859) and certain works of William Blake, to whom Gibran has been compared. FitzGerald’s translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám appeals especially to impressionable young adults: The poem had been bound in leather in a miniature edition and used as a prom favor at college dances.
Similarly, The Prophet owes much of its popularity to the young, who find in Gibran’s poetry the elusive quality of sincerity. At the height of its popularity in the 1960’s, The Prophet sold about five thousand copies per week. In large part because of personal recommendations rather than marketing, this best known of Gibran’s seventeen published books (nine in Arabic and eight in English) has been published in more than twenty languages and has sold tens of millions of copies, making Gibran one of the most widely published poets, behind only William Shakespeare and Lao Tzu. The hardcover sales of this thin volume made Gibran the best-selling Arabic author of the twentieth century, a remarkable feat considering The Prophet is a book of poetry. The Prophet has sold more copies for publisher Alfred A. Knopf than any other book in the publisher’s history.
Gibran intended The Prophet to be the first part of a trilogy—followed by The Garden of the Prophet and The Death of the Prophet. The second of this series was published posthumously (in 1933) and the third title was written by Jason Leen and released in 1979. Often compared to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen (1883-1885; Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1896), another philosophical, prophetical work in which divine beings walk among humans and dispense wisdom, The Prophet has been interpreted as Gibran’s longing to return to Lebanon. Penned after twelve years of living in New York City, Gibran views his absence from his homeland as an exile. The Prophet, Almustafa, also twelve years in exile, addresses the citizens of Orphalese, whom he has come to love and admire, much as Gibran admired his fellow Greenwich Village neighbors. Almitra likely was inspired by Mary Haskell, head of a Boston school who became Gibran’s muse.
To understand the power of Gibran’s words, it is necessary to know something of his life, of the agonies of remorse that burned within him, and of the loneliness of spirit that heightened his senses. Gibran was born in Bsharri, Lebanon (then a part of Ottoman Syria), the son of a poor shepherd family. When he was twelve years old, his mother took the family to the United States, to the city of Boston, hoping, like many immigrants of the day, to gain wealth quickly and then return to Lebanon. Gibran’s easygoing father had remained in Lebanon to care for the family’s small holdings. Soon the opportunities in the United States were apparent, and the mother decided that the sensitive Gibran must be educated. The older son and the two daughters joined the mother at unskilled labor to earn the money with which Gibran might gain an education. Within a few years, the family had been decimated by tuberculosis, and only Gibran and his sister, Marianna, remained. He never completely recovered from his grief and his sense...
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of guilt for the deaths of his family members, who had, in a sense, died for him.
Bolstered by the loyalty and industry of Marianna, Gibran began to write and draw. He illustrated his own writings, as had Blake. Financial success was elusive, but Gibran gained a patron who encouraged him to go abroad for study. He spent two years in Paris, then returned to the United States and soon set up a studio in Greenwich Village, where he worked for the remainder of his life. He began to write and publish in the English language in 1918 with The Madman, and in 1923 he published his masterpiece, The Prophet.
Never out of print, The Prophet has consistently found readers, but critics have been less kind, calling the work long and tedious; it is, however, only twenty-thousand words. It is a work that seems destined to be embraced by its youthful readers and repelled by its older critics, for it is often criticized for dispensing simplistic wisdom in a mystical fashion that defies experience and common sense. The messages of The Prophet ring hollow with more jaded critics when they submit the verse to closer inspection.
Gibran’s insistent subjectivity, shrouded in a religious-like mysticism, swirls the reader’s mind toward the center of a vortex in which evil has been flung aside and in which the human soul stands revealed in all its nobility and goodness. However, from a more practical standpoint, critics have noted, for example, that Almustafa, an old man, stands in one spot from morning until night, delivering one sermon after another without pausing to rest himself or his audience.
Gibran’s illustrations that accompany most of the poetry are often as striking as the words. Indeed, his works now hang in some of America’s finest art museums. In addition to living in Boston and in New York City, Gibran spent two years in Paris and studied at the famed École des Beaux-Arts with French sculptor Auguste Rodin.
Always frail, Gibran was driven beyond endurance by an inner force that would not let him rest. Death from a liver ailment caused by years of alcoholism overtook him in 1931 in the full flower of his productivity. His body was returned to Lebanon and buried with great honors in the village of his birth.