From the author’s desk, March 2023

6 March, 2023 in From the author's desk

I am often asked about Kahlil Gibran, the author of ‘The Prophet’ and the source of the titles of each of the novels in the Westcott Chronicles of Bath.

Kahlil was born in 1883 in the impoverished village of Bisharri overlooking the magnificent Qadisha Valley in northern Lebanon. The family were Maronite Christians: his mother Kamila was the daughter of a priest and his father had the reputation for violence – a drinker and gambler.

The boy was educated at a school run by the local priest until he was twelve, at which time Kamila left her husband and emigrated to the United States, where the family, speaking no English, settled in the slums of South End in Boston, Massachusetts.

At the age of thirteen, Gibran became interested in drawing, and was introduced to Fred Holland Day, the eccentric leader of the Boston avant garde, and imitators of the British Decadents and Pre-Raphaelites. Day became the boy’s friend and patron, introducing him to English literature, lending him books and directing him to the new Boston Public Library.

At Day’s exhibition of photographs in 1898, Gibran was introduced to Cambridge poet Josephine Prescott Peabody, some nine years older, and it was she who nicknamed him the Prophet. Within a year Kamila, concerned about the influence of his bohemian friends, took her son back to Lebanon to continue his education at the Maronite high school in Beirut.

At the age of eighteen, Gibran left Beirut to wander around Europe, eventually returning to America in April 1902.

It was at a show in 1904, where he was able to sell some of his pictures, that Gibran met Mary Haskell, who would become his most important and enduring patron. A shrewd businesswoman from a wealthy South Carolina family, she ran a private girl’s school in Boston. With Haskell’s backing he lived and mixed with the famous, devoting most of his time to painting with limited success over the years until 1914.

However, his literary career was blossoming: Al-Funum (‘The Arts’) an Arabic newspaper founded in New York in1913, published dozens of his poems. During the First World War he was associated  with ‘The Seven Arts’, the prominent American literary magazine founded in 1916, but forced to close because of its pacifist leaning, when the USA entered the war in 1917.

The Madman’: His Parables and Poems’, Gibran’s first book in English came out in 1918.

I have spent many enjoyable holidays in Cohasset – the beautiful small coastal town of a little of 8000 people, located 16 miles south of Boston. It was here in 1917 and 1918 that Gibran published al-Mawakib (The Procession) – a two hundred line poem of dialogue between an old man and youth on the edge of a forest: it is a masterpiece of mahjari  poetry, pioneering Arabic Verse. As year later in Cairo came al-Awasif (the Storms), a collection of 31 articles. This was followed by the Forerunner: His Parables and Poems, the harshness of war replaced by softer writing.

Gibran’s masterpiece ‘The Prophet’, was published in 1923: Haskell had referred to it in her journal of 1912. Written in Arabic and translated into English, which Haskell edited, and as with earlier books all the drawings are also by the author. The reviewers were few and rather indifferent, in contrast to the massive public acclaim. The first edition sold out in two months, followed by 1300 every year during the Great Depression, 60,000 in 1944 and 1,00,000 by 1957.

Kahlil Gibran died on 10th April 1931 of cirrhosis of the liver. After a funeral mass in Boston, and in accordance with his wishes, his coffin was returned to Bisharri, his birthplace in Lebanon.

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