“I came to take of your wisdom:
And behold I have found that which is greater than wisdom.”
So concludes the poet Kahlil Gibran in the final section of his most widely recognized work, The Prophet. Published in 1923, The Prophet is a collection of twenty-six prose poems, each of which deals with a subject such as “Love,” “Freedom,” or “Prayer,” often in the form of an extended allegory or fable. Despite mixed critical reception at the time of its publication, the book has never been out of print and Gibran is considered among the best-selling poets of all time.
Despite this ultimate success, however, Jubran Khalil Jubran was born into relative poverty in what was then Ottoman Syria (present-day Lebanon). His mother left his father and moved to Boston’s South End in 1895, when Gibran was only twelve years old. There, Gibran was placed into a school for the children of immigrants and his name was Americanized to Kahlil Gibran. He initially showed great promise as a visual artist, and took lessons from the renowned symbolist photographer Fred Holland Day. Later, Gibran received further schooling in both Syria and in Paris.
Through Day, Gibran was introduced to Josephine Prescott Peabody and later, Mary Haskell, both of whom served as his patrons and with whom he had intense—if non-sexual—relationships. Haskell supported Gibran through much of his career, eventually becoming his editor. In 1905, after briefly writing a column for an Arabic newspaper, Gibran’s first book, Music, was published. In 1918, he wrote his first book in English, The Madman: His Parables and Poems, which was published by Knopf. Though he had gained a reputation as a painter, this publication brought his writing to wider attention. Gibran’s work marked a formalistic break from traditional Arabic poetry, but drew upon traditional romantic themes.
During his lifetime, Gibran maintained friendships with figures such as Carl Jung, Auguste Rodin, and WB Yeats. His work, and especially The Prophet, had a substantial influence on writers of the 1960s, when the book achieved a second epoch of critical acclaim. The musicians David Bowie, Johnny Cash, John Lennon, and Elvis Presley all wrote about or quoted Gibran’s work.
A memorial designed by a relative, the sculptor Kahlil Gibran, stands in Copley Square.