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A Gentle Poet

by John Mahoney

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Modern skyscrapers tower over churches and a library nearly a century old in Copley Square, Boston. In the midst stands a quiet sentinel, a bronze and granite memorial to Kahlil Gibran. In recognition of his poetic and artistic contributions the memorial reads in part: “A grateful city acknowledges the greater harmony among men and strengthened universality of spirit given by Kahlil Gibran to the people of the world.”

Kahlil Gibran was born in 1883 to a poor family in the village of Basharri in northern Lebanon. As a child Kahlil never received a formal primary education. He desired to be alone with his thoughts and dreams rather than play with others his age. A neighbor, Selim Dahir, befriended him and made a significant impact on his early development. Dahir prompted and fostered the inquisitive inclinations of Gibran’s naturally bright and sensitive intellect. Even as a youngster, Kahlil was not just an idle daydreamer but an individual who could see in the world about him great potential. He saw a capacity for beauty within each individual and he sought to bring meaning to the lives of others. Most of his adult life he worked diligently to see the potential goodness of the world become a reality.

As did most people in Lebanon at the turn of the century, the Gibran’s experienced economic hardship. Kahlil’s father, never a good provider, subjected his family to public disdain when he became involved in a political scandal. When Kahlil was 12 his mother journeyed to America with her four children. Joining the immigrant community from Lebanon and Syria in Boston the family worked at learning foreign customs and a difficult language. The indomitable spirit of Gibran’s mother helped the struggling family survive. In her own quiet way, Kahlil’s mother fostered his growth and movement beyond the Syrian enclave to Boston’s artistic and literary community. He gravitated with other children to the Denison Settlement House, a neighborhood center for social and cultural activities. Here Gibran’s talent as an artist was first acknowledged and brought to the attention of sponsors. Chief among these was Fred Holland Day. Day, a publisher, often photographed Kahlil and introduced the young Gibran to literature. It was perhaps from his association with Day that the seeds for a freer, unorthodox type of poetry was first planted.

At the age of 15 Gibran returned to Lebanon to study in Beirut. A headstrong and independent student, Kahlil became immersed in Arabic literature and developed a keen consciousness and a thorough appreciation for the Bible. Four years later, he returned to America ready to devote himself to art and writing.

He began writing in his native language for an Arabic newspaper employing a more colloquial style than that of classical Arabic literature. Especially popular with the thousands of Arab immigrants who had settled in the new world, his Arabic writing also found an eager audience among the people of Lebanon. Works such as Spirits Rebellious and Nymphs of the Valley marked him as the leading and most influential of a group of authors known as the Mahjar writers. His early works seemed to be influenced by the American transcendentalist movement and the Romantic literature of the West.

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