The Poet as Symbol

Ernesto de la Peña

The history of the Near East, the cradle of Western civilization, has suffered all the upheavals and accidents of any human endeavor in the course of the centuries. Lebanon, on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, has not escaped this succession of invasions, civil wars, foreign domination, and periodic rebirth. Prodigiously endowed by nature, it is country which on the human level has enjoyed a singular convergence of cultural influences from both East and West. A single fact might serve as a concise history of the millenary history of the Lebanese: the country’s second language, after Arabic, is French, for following the collapse of the Ottoman empire at the end of the First World War, the League of Nations assigned to France a mandate over the region. Since that time, the educated classes of Lebanon have been bilingual. The union of cultural extremes in the Mediterranean basin has affected in equal measure the people’s inner being, the language they speak, and something as apparently external as their forms of courtesy, which in the case of the Lebanese reflect both the influence of French courtliness and the spontaneous refinement of the Oriental.

Located geographically at a crossroads, this coastal land has suffered all too often the abuses and excesses of other peoples, both occidental and oriental. Surprisingly, it has managed to overcome all obstacles, and its capital city, Beirut, has justly been called the Athens of the Near East. It is the spirit that has saved the Lebanese from the many aggressions they have suffered. The spirit, it may well be said, is the most effective shield against adversity.

The Arabic language, the language of the common people and therefore a faithful mirror of the mentality of the Lebanese, takes on particularly gentle modulations in this region. It is well known that this admirably rich and nuanced language has been an extraordinarily supple vehicle, since time immemorial, for the expression of lyrical sentiment. Indeed, apart from its religious value, the Koran, the holy book of the Muslims, is a remarkable collection of poems written in a highly plastic, sonorous, and profound language.

From early on, in the fifth century to be exact, Lebanon was occupied by Maronite Christians, a Syriac group in language and religious rituals, who have contributed definitively to the spiritual and cultural development of the Lebanese people. A short time later, in the course of the seventh century, the region was conquered by the Muslims, and since that moment Lebanon has shared the two conceptions of the world represented by Christians and by the followers of the Prophet.

This religious and cultural dichotomy can be clearly seen in two poets of very different complexion. On the one hand, there is the pro-Phoenician exaltation of Said Aql, whose passionate commitment has even led him on occasion to call for separation from all that is signified by the Arabic language and the undeniable values it has transmitted.

Under a very different sign, and with a more cordial—at times, indeed, even paternalistic—attitude, there is the poet Gibran Kahlil Gibran, whose work is penetrated by a vein of ancient Semitic wisdom, often of Biblical inspiration: an artistic experimenter with a lively awareness of the creator’s commitment to the community. Tradition and innovation coexist in Kahlil Gibran. In spite of the inner ambivalence such cultural circumstances may provoke, the spirit of concord predominates, along with a striving for the loving understanding of all peoples, whatever their ideology, race, or religion.

The civilizing impetus and lyrical gentleness of this poet have made him a symbol of the Lebanese nation and especially of its Maronite community, which sees in him a most significant emblem. His vast and complex oeuvre has been almost entirely recovered, through the skill and diligence of numerous researchers. With painstaking yet affectionate detective work, they have assembled an enormous and absolutely indispensable collection for those interested in the creations of this multifaceted artist, whose prophetic gifts and lyrical tone ensure him a place in the ancient tradition of wisdom literature.

Coexisting in Gibran are a bohemian lifestyle, multiple artistic aptitudes, and an unwavering creative urge, which was not always subject, however, to definite control. Most of all, we are able to understand the strong ties that connect this emblematic poet of Lebanon with poetry written in Arabic, with the inspiration of the Bible, and with the premonitions that explain and justify the title of his best-known work: The Prophet. It is important to add, however, that most of Gibran’s literary work, including the book just mentioned, was written in English, which became his second language following his immigration early in life from Lebanon to the United States.

The extraordinary fecundity of this creator, ever restlessly in search of new forms of expression, can be appreciated in his books, drawings, letters, paintings, and other compositions of various kinds. For Mexicans, eager to expand the cultural horizons of their country, it is a stroke of good fortune to have Gibran’s work in their possession. It would be fascinating to learn the details and vicissitudes of the search for the genuinely human and creative profile of this most representative figure of the great culture of Lebanon.