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When the secret history of the 20th century in America is written, and we have access to that true inner life, we shall see the prominence of the poets readers really loved, not the poets they were told to admire or pretended to understand: Edgar Guest, Sara Teasdale, and Gibran, whose words used to be heard at thousands of weddings and high occasions every year; only Rumi (interestingly, another Middle Eastern mystic) has begun to challenge Gibran's primacy in the American imagination. Born to a Maronite Catholic family in Lebanon in the 1880s, Gibran came to this country when he was 12 years old, where his undoubted talent as an artist attracted the attention of a succession of patrons; he studied briefly with no less a titan than Rodin. He began to write-his paintings and sketches increasingly served as oblique illustrations for his work-in a style that equally recalled the New Testament and Whitman, as his paintings faintly echoed Blake and Simeon Solomon. The steady triumph of his fourth work in English, The Prophet, is part of the success story of the then-young publishing company Alfred A. Knopf, and this year Knopf has given Gibran the loving, acid-free treatment, collecting all his English works into one handsome volume.
It is fashionable to deride Gibran as a poet, and at length, his pseudo-Authorized Version, para-Arabian Nightsvoice is indeed exhausting-but his counsel is far from pernicious. We forget how Christian he was-one lengthy work in this volume, Jesus the Son of Man, is nothing less than a polychoral fictional biography of Jesus. Gibran is just alien enough for enchantment, like Valentino's sheik; the bible of the unchurched, he gives usa kind of gospel without difficulty, Christianity without sharp edges. His poetic sensibility is very much that of the fin de siecle; in him, the aesthetic dreams of the 1890s go on and on into the 21st century. We may know The Prophettoo well to love it now, but the aphorisms of the earlier volumes, The Madmanand The Forerunner, reward reading-they give us Gibran almost Nietzschean in his spikiness and humor, before high solemnity overtook him. Whether or not he is a Yeats or a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gibran is hugely important, and this handsome book is essential for all collections.