by Sana Darghmouni, translated from Italian by Pina Piccolo.
Blake is the God-man. His drawings are so far the
profoundest things done in English – and his vision,
putting aside his drawings and his poems, is the most godly.
(Kahlil Gibran in a letter of 6 October 1915 to Mary Haskell)
Inspired mostly by the European model and its lofty concepts, Romanticism in the Arab world was born as a movement in radical opposition to the classicism of earlier literature and thought. Thus, at the beginning of the twentieth century, numerous Arab writers developed a romantic consciousness and began a quest for a new language and a matching, appropriate form of thinking. This awareness ripened as it confronted, on one hand, the needs of the social setting from which it sprang, and, on the other, the openness to Western literature, especially the extensive and rich nineteenth century tradition. Kahlil Gibran was certainly one of the most important figures in this new tendency. His discovery of the Romantic model allowed for its introduction in the literature of the Arab world, even though it wasn’t officially accepted right away. The focus of this article is on the poetic model that was to exert the greatest influence on him, i.e., the work of William Blake.
Kahlil Gibran was originally from Lebanon, but lived and died in the United States, in the years straddling the end of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth. At the beginning of his literary career, he wrote in Arabic, but in his more mature years and to the end of his life, he adopted English as the language of his writings. Gibran, the writer of the Mahjar movement, found himself immediately faced with the painful conflict of being torn between two different worlds, the East and the West. As an immigrant writer, he solved this conflict through his art, especially his poetry, which he used to reconcile the two sides of the contradiction. About a century after the great season of Romanticism in Europe, in 1908, world famous sculptor August Rodin defined the Lebanese writer as “le William Blake du vingtième siècle” , for his visionary poetry, his attempt to produce a synthesis of the most basic contradictions and his awareness of his own prophetic gifts. This self-awareness is attested by a letter he wrote in 1930 to Mary Zoadeh:
I was born to live and to write a book –only one small book- I was born to live and suffer and to say one living and winged word and I cannot remain silent until life utters that word through my lips.
Like Prmetheus, Gibran is an incarnation, the symbol of a Romantic genius constantly struggling against a mediocre reality, in his journey to infinity. He was able to fulfill his promise and to pronounce the word for which he was born, a prophetic word that always inflamed him until it finally materialized in his artistic production. The“living and winged word” he mentions in the letter cited above was in fact translated into a message of love and freedom, a poetry of unity, which seeks to embrace opposites, to reconcile contradictions and to bridge divisions until they join together in an ideal encounter, inspired by nineteen century ideals which had nurtured European Romantic thought, especially, those of English poet William Blake, or“the God-man” as Gibran’s called him. The young Lebanese writer owed to Rodin his discovery of Blake, as he encountered Western culture during a period of study in Paris, which was decisive for his future development. In the following passage, Gibran reminisces about the long lasting enchantment of that extraordinary moment:
How strange, that fates should led me to-day to Rodin who led me to Blake. Truly do they say that things do not happen except in their due time. There is a due time for everything. I always thought me a stranger in this world. Now comes Blake to keep me company. I thought me a lonely wanderer; now is Blake with his torch lighting my path. What kinship is there between me and that man? Has his soul come back to this earth to dwell in my body? (…) I shall be happy when men shall say about me what they said of Blake: ‘He is a madman.’ Madness in art is creation. Madness in poetry is wisdom. Madness in the search for God is the highest form of worship.
In support of Rodin’s prophetic pronouncement, the first affinity linking Gibran to Blake is undoubtedly the simultaneous use of two forms of artistic expression, i.e., poetry and painting, which were not always independent from each other, especially in the case of both artists. In fact, by joining words and drawing in an harmonious picture, the two artists lent full artistic expression to their thought by choosing a symbolic style of writing, based on creating a mythology that brings together harmoniously the verbal and the visual. That is how in their works, and especially in their poetry, a mythological universe is brought to life, as a kind of counter-system in which the conceptual and the visual coexist, translating it into a unified, visionary genre. Blake attempts to re-write reality and redefine the process of life in a symbolic key, sometimes even a hermetic one, the source of inspiration being the Bible, in so far as his mythology draws from the myth of the Fall and entails a Savior, identified as Jesus Christ or with ‘Poetic Genius’, redeeming humanity from original sin. Gibran’s mythology takes the same route, because it starts off from a world inhabited by gods, angels and demons and then flows into a synthesis based on Christianity, which coincides with a Christ figure. The messianic figure is beloved to the Lebanese writer to the point of becoming an obsession; it is a figure that through the message of final salvation and love is always used as a backdrop to his artistic production.
In spite of the Bible being the source of the mythology proposed by the two artists, it remains a rather personal mythology, conceived to function as a mask behind which they can hide, sometimes their own disappointments with the world and, at other times, their own awareness of the contradictory reality in which they have to live. it is the awareness of the Romantic, dissident and rebellious spirit, which, once it rejects the real world of its times, needs to create and to paint a new world of its own. In spite of its personal character, this mythology is also a new order in which the past and the present converge, in which individual destiny extends to and embraces universal destiny as well, in which vision and history are wedded. Resorting to mythological plots could often be considered a veiled expression for a deep desire to change the order of things and an explicit reference to revolution. In their powerlessness to make it come true, artists attempt to upset the structure of the real world by creating a fantastic and irrational one on which they can project their frustrations and betrayed expectations. Therefore, one can say that the mythology of these two artists, understood an a alternative, is not only an idealistic shelter but also has some political implications, because by using a genre which appears to be non-realistic, the poets can let their critiques and disapproval show through. Aware of the strong reaction that his writings often elicited in the Arab world, due to his political and literary positions, which were generally too daring and provoking for the spirit of his times, Gibran confesses in a letter to his friend Mary:
I am an Absolutist, Mary, and Absolutism has no country –but my heart burns for Syria. Fate has been cruel to her – much more than cruel. Her gods are dead, her children abandoned her to seek bread in faraway lands, her daughters are dumb and blind, and yet She is still alive –alive –and that is the most painful thing. She is alive in the midst of her miseries. I am writing something which may turn the whole Arabic world against me. But –I am prepared for it! I am getting used to being nailed on the cross.
Almost all of Blake’s poems, especially those of his mature years, revolve around the topic of the Fall, which the Romantic poet customizes and perceives as the myth of the split occurring inside the human Ego. In spite of its conflictual character, according to Blake, it is an inevitable process that is determined by the splitting of the original unity in human beings, i.e., the transition from a state of innocence to that of experience.
In fact, from the gnostic perspective, the Fall occurs not only in order to explain the split but also to prepare, as providential fate or act of mercy, that which reconciles and joins together, thus returning the self to its original state of unity that had become disintegrated. It is truly in this sense that the Fall expresses a moment of mediation 
The Four Zoas, for example opens with the song of Beulah’s daughters who introduce the event of the Fall of Albion. From the beginning, one can notices the redeeming and positive character attributed by Blake to the phenomenon of the Fall, which becomes an instrument of rebirth. The Ego makes its descent towards the finite world until it reaches the realm of degradation, all the way down to death , but the re-emerges to an eternal rebirth. Before the split, the four eternal elements partook of an original unity and were in absolute harmony with it. After the Fall, however, and after Albion found himself in a degraded condition, that of a Fallen man, the initial harmony is broken resulting in feelings of conflict and contrast arising among the Zoas themselves. At the beginning, i.e., in the original state, these beings represented the four elements that are fundamental to human nature: Urizen, was Reason; Urthona, Imagination; Tharmas, the Body; and Luvah, Emotion. With the Fall and the subsequent upsetting of that order, the situation is turned upside down. The Zoas continue to represent the same elements but in their negative state, i.e. they are degraded, as a result of their drifting away from their primary source. In the first seven nights of the poem, this leads to them entering into conflct with each other and fighting. Thus, the original harmony is superseded by the will to dominate over man. With the Fall, a necessary and inevitable transition needed in order to recover their lost integrity, the four elements become instruments of restriction and annihilation as well as sources of continuous fracture . The conclusion of the tale, however, exalts rebirth and triumph, which must pass though an apocalyptic event:
The Sun arises from his dewy bed, and the fresh airs
Play in his smiling beams giving the seeds of life to grow,
And the fresh Earth beams forth ten thousand thousand springs of life.
Urthona is arisen in his strength, no longer now
Divided from Enitharnom, no longer the Spectre Los.
In his work The Earth Gods, Gibran too deals with the topic of the Fall and the conflict that torments the human soul before the final resolution, i.e. turning the Ego into a god, the god-self. The poem, centering on man’s fate, is written in the form of a dialogue between three gods, who represent three great tendencies in the human heart. Man, the object of this titanic debate, seems an open field under the influence of an invisible but infinite conflict. In this struggle, the two destinies, the divine and the human, must intertwine in order to reach a single final goal, because in Gibran’s mythology gods are nothing else but the symbol of three, unmanifested desires of human nature, which in turn is nothing other than an extention of the divine ego. The apparition of the three gods, the Master Titans of Life here too takes place at night time, when they appear on the scene and start their dialogue in a lofty nocturnal atmosphere, fluttering above the hills. The first one is an old pessimistic god, with a dead look in his eyes, so disgusted by life and tired of his endeavors that he desires his own annihilation. For him, values are nothing else but vanity and his only desire is to disappear from the memory of time to join the void:
Weary is my spirit of all there is.
I would not move a hand to create a world
Nor to erase one. (…)
Could I but lose the primal aim
And vanish like a wasted sun; (…)
Could I but be consumed and pass from time’s memory
Into the emptiness of nowhere!
In contrast with the god of pessimism, the second god displays a great desire for power and expansion, which spurs him to glorify life and consequently to reject death. He claims that the gods govern life and the spirit, that only they understand the mysteries and secrets of time and that they created man from the union between the sea and the sun. Here too the theme of the wedding between the elements represents a primordial communion of opposites. It undoubtedly calls to mind an analogy with Blake’s thought. The second god is the god of ambition whose purpose is that of dominating man in order to derive benefits and praise:
I would not be so vain as to be no more.
I could not but choose the hardest way;
To follow the seasons and support the majesty of the years; (…)
To raise man from secret darkness,
Yet keep his roots clinging to the earth;
To give him thirst for life, and make death his cupbearer; (…)
Thus shall we rule man unto the end of time,
Governing the breath that began with his mother’s crying,
And ends with the lamentation of his children.
The third god instead preaches love as the only meaning and value of life. While the first two, one immersed in his pessimism and the other blinded by his desire for domination, continue their dialogue, they pay no attention to what the third god is saying. However, the third god ends up triumphing at the end and, to make love accessible to them, leads them through the path of beauty. In his first apparition, the third god introduces his values by using the metaphor of dance as a liberating and transcendental movement, and urges the others to observe the dance of a maiden under the moon:
Brothers, my august brothers,
Down in the myrtle grove
A girl is dancing to the moon,
A thousand dew-stars are in her hair,
About her feet a thousand wings.
 Virginia Hilu, Beloved Prophet, The love letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell, New York, Knopf, 1972, p.260.
 Adab al-Mahjar (literature of exile or immigration) was a literary movement that was born in the USA between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as a result of a wave of Arab immigration coming into the country from Syria and Lebanon.
 Jean-Pierre Dahdah, Gibran l’homme et l’oeuvre in Kahlil Gibran: Poète de la Sagesse, Question de Albin Michel : revue dirigée par Marc de Smedt, Paris, 1990, p.14.
 Kahlil Gibran, A Self-portrait, translated and edited by Anthony R. Ferris, London, Heinemann, 1974, p.90.
 Jean Gibran and Kahlil Gibran, Kahlil Gibran, His Life and World, Interlink Books, New York, 1998, p.183
 Mikhail Naimy, Kahlil Gibran: a Biography, with a pref. by Martin L. Wolf, London, Quartet Books, 1988, pp. 87-88.
 Mary Elizabeth Haskell, was the director of a school for girls in Boston. After meeting her at 21 years of age in that city, Gibran had a life- long relationship of friendship and love with her. She was a determining figure in his development, both in terms of his English language skills, his philosophy and his introduction into some of Boston’s intellectual and cultural circles. Female figures were always of the outmost importance for his literary career, starting from his mother, Kamila Rahme, a sensitive and courageous woman, who after breaking up with her husband immigrated to the United States, taking young Kahlil and his siblingswith her.
 Virginia Hilu, Beloved Prophet, cit., p.100.
 Sergio Givone, William Blake, arte e religione, Milano, Mursia, 1978, pp.18-19.
 Ibidem, p.106.
 William Blake, Vala Or The Four Zoas in William Blake, Opere, edited by Roberto Sanesi, Ugo Guanda Editore, Parma, second edition 1991, p. 464.
 Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, with an introduction by Robin Waterfield, Penguin Classics, London, 2002, p. 47.
 Kahlil Gibran, The Earth Gods, Alfred-Knopf, New York, 1966, p. 3.
 Ibidem, pp. 5-6.
 Ibidem, p. 15.
 Ibidem, pp. 6-8.
 Ibidem, p. 10.
Part II of this will appear in the May issue of The Dreaming Machine.
The complete essay was published originally in Italian in the first issue of La Macchina Sognante, which in Italy is considered the 0 issue.
Sana Darghmouni was born and educated in Morocco, and has earned her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Bologna, where she had previously received her degree in Language and Foreign Literatures. She has taught Arabic at the University of Perugia and is currently teaching Arabic and Arab literature at the University of Bologna. She is one of the translators into Italian of Ashraf Fayadh’s poetry collection “Instructions Within”, and has written on Mahmoud Darwish, Khaled Khalifa, Hassan Najmi, Aicha Arnaout, and other Arab authors, whose work she has also translated into Italian. She has collaborated on the revision and the expansion of the Italian-Arabic compact dictionary edited by E. Baldissera to be published by Zanichelli, and is currently writing a two volume textbook of Arabic grammar. She is one of the founding members of La Macchina Sognante and is currently one of its editors.
Featured image: photo by Melina Piccolo.