Honouring our poetic ancestors
By Khalil Gibran (1883-1931)
And a poet said, Speak to us of Beauty.
And he answered:
Where shall you seek beauty, and how shall you find her unless she herself be your way and your guide?
And how shall you speak of her except she be the weaver of your speech?
The aggrieved and the injured say, 'Beauty is kind and gentle.
' Like a young mother half-shy of her own glory she walks among us.'
And the passionate say, 'Nay, beauty is a thing of might and dread.
'Like the tempest she shakes the earth beneath us and the sky above us.'
The tired and the weary say, 'Beauty is of soft whisperings. She speaks in our spirit.
'Her voice yields to our silences like a faint light that quivers in fear of the shadow.'
But the restless say, 'We have heard her shouting among the mountains,
'And with her cries came the sound of hoofs, and the beating of wings and the roaring of lions.'
At night the watchmen of the city say, 'Beauty shall rise with the dawn from the east.'
And at noontide the toilers and the wayfarers say, 'we have seen her leaning over the earth from the windows of the sunset.'
In winter say the snow-bound, 'She shall come with the spring leaping upon the hills.'
And in the summer heat the reapers say, 'We have seen her dancing with the autumn leaves, and we saw a drift of snow in her hair.'
All these things have you said of beauty.
Yet in truth you spoke not of her but of needs unsatisfied,
And beauty is not a need but an ecstasy.
It is not a mouth thirsting nor an empty hand stretched forth,
But rather a heart enflamed and a soul enchanted.
It is not the image you would see nor the song you would hear,
But rather an image you see though you close your eyes and a song you hear though you shut your ears.
It is not the sap within the furrowed bark, nor a wing attached to a claw,
But rather a garden forever in bloom and a flock of angels for ever in flight.
People of Orphalese, beauty is life when life unveils her holy face.
But you are life and you are the veil.
Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror.
But you are eternity and you are the mirror.
From 'The Prophet'
Of course I wish I were capable of writing that whole book, The Prophet, Gibran's masterpiece. I choose this section to share with you because Gibran imagines it being addressed to a poet, and because it may not be quite so familiar to you as those sections more frequently quoted, e.g. Children, Joy and Sorrow, Marriage.
Gibran was born in Lebanon, and migrated to the USA with his mother and
siblings when he was still a schoolboy.
(It was due to a school error
that his first name is sometimes given as Kahlil; indeed he is so widely
known by that version that Google will accept either and direct you
I was surprised, when researching this post, to find he died as young as 48, and as long ago as 1931. The Prophet has never gone out of print and its message has not dated. Wikipedia tells us it was translated into more than 40 languages and was the best-selling book in the United States in the 20th Century. Deservedly so, I think. I find the wisdom unarguable and its expression perfect.
Wikipedia describes it as a book of philosophical essays, and also as prose poems, and even as a work of fiction. It is indeed all of these, impossible to separate; yet I always see it primarily as poetry. We are also told that Gibran is the third best-selling poet of all time, after Shakespeare and Lao Tzu! He wrote in both English and Arabic, and Wikipedia further notes:
In the Arab world, Gibran is regarded as a literary and political rebel.
His romantic style was at the heart of a renaissance in modern Arabic
literature, especially prose poetry, breaking away from the classical school. In Lebanon, he is still celebrated as a literary hero.
He was also known as an artist, having studied art as a schoolboy in Boston, and later in Paris. Realism was the coming vogue, but in his art as in his writing, he preferred a romantic style. Some of his own pictures illustrate The Prophet. These too seem perfect for the purpose.
So where did he get his deep insights? Talent of that degree may be random and mysterious — inherent — but how is such wisdom acquired?
Brought up Christian, he also studied Islam, particularly Sufism, as well as Judaism and theosophy. We are also told he had strong ties to the Baha'i faith. He was evidently on a spiritual quest, and it seems he may well have been naturally mystical in his outlook.
Five pages of his poems are available to read at PoemHunter — and when I got up to 11 pages of books by and about him on Amazon, I stopped counting. The Amazon list certainly includes several editions of The Prophet, but that was by no means his only book (just the one widely considered the best and most moving). His influence was vast, and it continues without an end in sight.