During what has been called Gibran’s first literary phase (1902-1915), he wrote exclusively in Arabic and published eight books. They included Al Ajnịḥah al-Mutakassirah (1912; The Broken Wings, 1957), Kitb Dam’ah wa Ibtismah (1914; Tears and Laughter, 1946, also known as A Tear and a Smile, 1950), and Al-Mawkib (1919; The Procession, 1947). The Broken Wings, a prose poem about a young man’s first love, is considered his best and most popular work in Arabic. His best poetic work is said to be The Procession, which explores the “complete unity of all living things as they moved toward the fulfillment of their beings.” His plays and short stories became known from China to Spain.
Gibran’s use of short and simple words in his early poetry introduced a new style to Arab poets, who generally prided themselves on using words that had to be looked up in a dictionary. In addition, his first writings express dismay over the poor and oppressive conditions in his homeland and often urge his countrymen to revolt against the Turks. All of his writings of this period in some way reflect his revolt against the social, the religious, and the literary forms of the day. Many of these writings also depicted Gibran’s typical hero, who used eloquent speech to overcome the Lebanese feudal lords and the clergy, who were fundamentally anti-Christian.
His best works, however, are considered to be those written between 1918 and his death in 1931. This time became known as his second literary period, when he wrote mainly in English, and his themes changed from revolt to contentment and peace. During these years he wrote few poems, but those he did reflect the same topics as his prose: the power of universal love, nature, and the essential goodness of humanity. Perhaps the difficulty he experienced using the English language was one reason he wrote more prose than poetry during this time. His English prose consists of moral fables, aphorisms, fragments of conversation, and parables. The works of this period include The Madman: His Parables and Poems (1918), The Forerunner: His Parables and Poems (1920), The Prophet (1923), Sand and Foam (1926), Jesus, the Son of Man (1928), and The Earth Gods (1931). Two works published after his death were The Wanderer: His Parables and His Sayings (1932) and The Garden of the Prophet (1933).
While there are clear distinctions between the writings of the two periods, there are similarities as well. First, Gibran frequently uses himself and his homeland as the basis for his literary characters and settings. For example, The Broken Wings, set in Lebanon, is thought to be autobiographical. Likewise, in The Prophet, the young prophet Almustafa is considered to be Gibran, and the return to the “isle of his birth” is interpreted as Gibran’s desire to return to Lebanon. Second, Gibran considered himself a poet-prophet-philosopher. While this combination was common in Arabic literary circles, it does not have a counterpart in the American tradition. It is widely believed in the West that philosophers are supposed to think more deeply and objectively than other people. They are supposed to analyze facts and events as well as cause-and-effect relationships. The expected result of such study is to produce general principles and concepts that may be applied to life. Except for the general principles, Gibran does not much conform to the Western concept of what a philosopher is. Third, Gibran’s works are known for their mysticism, simplicity, imagery, metrical beauty, wisdom, and lofty vision. Basic to his writings are eternal questions, such as “What is humankind’s purpose?” and “Where did humankind come from and where is it going?” He consistently deals with human relationships, questions about life and death, and the need to know oneself. His writings reflect his beliefs that life is a mixture of joy and suffering, that individuals are responsible for their own destiny, and that humans are social beings who must coexist. Other themes include the difficulties faced by women, the power of and need for truth over law, the importance of work, the concept of love as a unifying force in nature, and the possibility of reincarnation, in the sense that one returns to finish the work left undone by one’s death. Fourth, Gibran’s writings spark the imagination. Whether it is the multiple messages that can be found within the same work, the similes or metaphors drawn from nature, or the various moods created by simple words, the reader is drawn into the work and becomes a part of it.
There are two key characteristics to Gibran’s style. First, there is parallelism, repetition, and refrain. The second characteristic is a rhythm such as that found in biblical and other sacred writings. While these qualities greatly influenced Arabic literature, they are not common in American literature. This may be one reason why Gibran’s writings have never received much attention from American literary scholars.
First published: 1923
Type of work: Narrative
A young prophet, about to leave the place where he has lived for twelve years, shares his wisdom through responses to questions directed to him.
The Prophet, Gibran’s most famous work, has sold more copies and been translated into more languages than any of his other writings. Its popularity has been attributed to its simple style, metrical beauty, and words of wisdom. It focuses on human relationships—with others, with nature, and with God.
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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...
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