A short summary of the origins and significance of The Prophet, the 1923 book by Kahlil Gibran
Here’s a question for you. Can you name the three biggest-selling poets in the world? Shakespeare has to be in there (and he is – at number one in most accounts), but what about the other two? William Wordsworth? Homer? Alfred, Lord Tennyson? John Betjeman, maybe? His poetry sold a lot of copies in the twentieth century. No, the other two names to make the trio of bestseller-poets are ancient Chinese poet-philosopher Lao-Tzu, and Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), author of the 1923 book The Prophet. (Gibran is usually placed third on the list; Lao-Tzu is at number two.)
The Prophet is Gibran’s most popular work and is largely the reason he is one of the three biggest-sellers in world poetry. Accurate worldwide sales figures for the book are not known, but it has sold in the tens of millions, in over 50 languages. Born in Lebanon, Gibran moved to the United States as a young boy and wrote in both Arabic and English, but The Prophet was written in the latter. To date it has sold over 9 million copies in its US edition alone – about a million every decade. And it has sold steadily since its publication in 1923. Indeed, it has grown increasingly popular: in 1935 it had sold 12,000 copies, but by 1962 sales had increased almost tenfold to 111,000. In the next four years these figures more than doubled to 240,000: the emergence of the counterculture in the 1960s and the rise in ‘New Age’ philosophy and literature no doubt helped. It was estimated that at one point it was selling 5,000 copies a week worldwide. Most poets can only dream of such sales.
Why has The Prophet been such a favourite with readers around the world for over ninety years? No idea, say some critics: its vast popularity is baffling in the face of its ‘mediocre’ qualities as a piece of prose poetry. The book is divided into 26 ‘essays’ or ‘sermons’ spoken by a wise man, Almustapha, as he waits to set sail for his homeland, having spent the last dozen years in exile. It’s a mixture of philosophy, mysticism, and poetic description.
The book, then, has been particularly prized by those who crave some sort of spiritual message but disdain the dogma offered by organised religion. Its messianic title aside, there is nothing prescriptive about The Prophet: its power lies in Gibran’s ability to offer a convincing spiritual ‘philosophy’ shorn of the more demanding moral tenets and attitudes of the world’s religions. (Gibran himself was raised Catholic and remained a Christian, but The Prophet offers something that stands separate from his Christian faith. He was also influenced by the Islamic Sufi faith in his work.)
It has continued to enjoy popularity. In 1974 there was a musical adaptation starring Richard Harris. In 2014, there was an animated film of The Prophet, titled Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, produced by (and featuring the voice of) Salma Hayek, along with the voice of Liam Neeson. But despite his success – or, perhaps, because of it – Gibran is a name seldom found on university degree courses.
There’s no place for him in the traditional history of Anglophone poetry: published a year after The Waste Land, Gibran’s prose poem reflects neither the postwar breakdown of old values and traditions which T. S. Eliot’s poem embodies nor the fragmented literary modernism which Eliot helped to define. He’s an oddity, a one-off, and doesn’t slot easily into any literary ‘narrative’. He seems to share more with the Romantics of over a century before than he does with his contemporaries.
The sculptor Auguste Rodin called Gibran ‘the Blake of the 20th century’ – at least, according to Gibran himself, who was almost certainly lying when he passed on this judgment. As well as a successful poet, Gibran was also a first-rate mythmonger, especially when Kahlil Gibran himself was the subject. His actual life was altogether more ordinary. Robert Irwin went so far as to say: ‘Almost everyone I know has had a more interesting life than Gibran; even I am having a more interesting life than he had.’ Irwin added: ‘He seems to be a favourite poet of those who don’t like poetry.’
Judge for yourself: you can read the whole of The Prophet online here. And if you like the idea underpinning The Prophet but are left cold by Kahlil’s execution of it, we recommend another prose poem from the 1920s, French poet St.-John Perse’s Anabase, translated into English by T. S. Eliot as Anabasis in 1930.
Gibran’s name is usually spelled Kahlil though it is also sometimes rendered as ‘Khalil’. Either way, Kahlil was not his first name but his middle name: his real first name, Gibran (he was originally Gibran Kahlil Gibran), was dropped when he enrolled at school in America.
Image: Kahlil Gibran, 1913 (author unknown), Wikimedia Commons.