Kahlil Gibran’s ‘On Love’ is the first prose-poem that is spoken by the blessed prophet and the central character of his best-loved work “The Prophet”. This verse collection had become extremely popular in its initial days. Till today, it has been translated into over 100 languages. It was never out of print.
The poetry collection begins with the chapter, “The Coming of the Ship”. It introduces the central figure Al Mustafa who had been waiting for twelve years in the city of Orphalese for his ship to return. He stayed in that city for a long time and created a spiritual relationship not only with the place but also with the people. That’s why when he was about to leave the city people leaving their daily works came to meet him for the last time.
Al Mustafa proceeded to the great square along with them. There appeared a seeress named Almitra who requested him to share his lifelong learning on different things. The first and foremost, she wanted to know from him was love. This poem records what Al Mustafa shared with them regarding this concept.
This poem deals with what the prophet Al Mustafa told in reply to the prophetess, Almitra. She asked him to tell them about love on the eve of his parting. A word of caution, he does not talk about erotic love, rather he is exploring the true nature of divine love. This love transcends the human soul to divinity.
According to him, this love is different from all the other forms known to all. It has two aspects. On one hand, it supplies eternal pleasure to one’s soul. On the other hand, a person has to undergo pain for reaping the benefits of it. He goes on to use the metaphors the listeners are familiar with. As his followers hail from the agricultural society, he prefers to use natural metaphors for simplifying this concept.
In the overall text, he uses several comparisons and contrasts to unravel the difficulty of nurturing divine love in one’s heart. A person has to think unselfishly and accept what the almighty sends him. Be it pleasure or pain, they have to accept it. In this way, they can be a part of God.
Gibran’s ‘On Love’ is a prose poem fable. The lines of this piece are prosaic. Yet it resembles the form of poetry. It is a conversational poem that narrates the wisdom of the prophet Al Mustafa. This form is followed throughout this piece.
As this poem is mostly in the prose format, there is not any specific rhyme scheme. There are some instances where the readers can find internal rhyming that maintains the flow of the text. The lines are grouped into some stanzas that focus on a particular idea or deal with a specific aspect of divine love. Some stanzas are short while some of them are comparably long.
There is not any set metrical pattern in this poem. It is composed of both the iambic and trochaic meter. This mixed use of the metrical scheme is an important feature of conversational poetry.
Then said Almitra, Speak to us of Love.
And he raised his head and looked upon
the people, and there fell a stillness upon
them. And with a great voice he said:
When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
Gibran’s poem ‘On Love’ is a mediation on the nature of spiritual love. The central character of “The Prophet,” Al Mustafa gets a request from one of his admirers. She is a prophetess of the Orphalese city. When the speaker is about to set out for his homeland, she requests him to throw light on love.
Al Mustafa had a deep relationship not only with the city but also with its people. For this reason, at the time of parting, he was sad. By lowering his head, he was crying. On hearing the prophetess Almitra he raised his head and looked at the people eagerly waiting to hear his words. Those who were around him were in awe as the speaker was going to share his learnings for the last time. They wanted to make the most of this moment.
They were around him for the mutual love they share with the prophet. Therefore, Almitra asked him to enlighten them about this idea. In the fourth line, the usage of the phrase “great voice” is important to look at. It creates a pious mood inside the text. Besides, it seems as if a divine spirit who is about to set out for heaven is going to share his lifelong learning.
The first idea he shared about love was its humane aspect. This love he was talking about represents the almighty spirit, God. When love signals one to move forward in a particular direction one should not hesitate. According to him, the ways of love is always “hard and steep.” The quoted phrase presents an image of a rocky and steep mountain. Its summit represents the ultimate destination of the human soul. To reach the soul’s fullness, a person has to undertake this steep journey though the road is rough and perilous.
And when his wings enfold you yield to
Though the sword hidden among his
pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in
Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.
In the next few lines, the speaker goes on to describe how they should respond to love’s call. In the first line, he presents an image of an angel. The “wing” symbolizes God himself. According to the speaker, when God caresses a person, he should submit himself totally to Him.
His wings contain a hidden sword that can harm a person. But the wounds he gets will lead him to his ultimate destination. In this way, the speaker introduces the idea of salvation. Besides, the image of wings associated with a sword depicts the dual aspects of love. It saves a person as well as hurts him. But, the wounds received to make his soul stronger.
When God, the embodiment of eternal love, speaks to a man, he has to keep faith in what he says. The voice of the almighty may shatter the dreams. It is like the “north wind.” It represents the destructive side of God. When the north wind blows, the withering leaves start to fall. God’s voice is like this wind. It helps one’s soul to shed off worldly thoughts. When the soul is free from the clutches of worldliness, it becomes ready to set out on the way of salvation. So, it is essential to leave the mortal dreams before getting God’s love.
For even as love crowns you so shall he
crucify you. Even as he is for your growth
so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and
caresses your tenderest branches that quiver
in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and
shake them in their clinging to the earth.
In this stanza of ‘On Love,’ Gibran’s speaker presents a series of contrasting ideas to explore the nature of love. Firstly, he talks about the reward of divine love as well as the pain of it. This love crowns a soul like Christ’s love for humanity crowned him in heaven. But, before redeeming mankind he was crucified and suffered bitterly on the cross. In the same manner, a soul has to undergo to bear the pain of the metaphorical crucifixion before being crowned in heaven.
This love helps a person to grow inwardly. Alongside that, it also checks on the growth of the soul. If there are any worldly thoughts, this love eliminates those thoughts like a farmer prunes the weeds. So, it helps in the complete development of the spiritual self.
In the following lines, Gibran presents some important metaphors. The first metaphor is that of the “tenderest branches.” It is a reference to a spiritually awakened person’s vulnerability. The divine spirit protects him from the scorching rays of the sun. So, here the “sun” symbolizes a negative power that hurts the tender souls.
The next few lines present the metaphor of the “roots”. It is a reference to the root of worldliness. When a person comes into this world, he enroots himself in it. The roots stop the soul to ascend to the divine height. God or the divine love shakes those roots clinging to the earth to release the soul from every kind of attraction and mortal desire.
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred
fire, that you may become sacred bread for
God’s sacred feast.
Through this stanza of the poem, ‘On Love’ the prophet Al Mustafa describes how love draws the best out of a person or the soul. The usage of metaphors has a connection with the context of the book, “The Prophet”. If readers look At the previous chapter, they can see that Al Mustafa’s admirers hail from the agricultural society. Therefore to make this clear to them, he had to find a way to communicate his ideas with clarity. He chose the metaphors most familiar to them.
The speaker presents an image of the gathering of corn sheaves at one place. Using a simile, he compares the sheaves to the people standing around him. The divine love will gather a soul in itself. It threshes all the worldly desires from his heart like a reaper threshes the sheaves to collect the corns.
Through these primary steps, a person’s soul can be purged. If some desires remain in his soul, the supreme love will sift the soul free from the metaphorical husks. Like husks, some desire is intricately attached to the soul, that it hinders a person on his way of attaining salvation.
Thereafter, the speaker describes how bread can be made from the sifted corns. After sifting, the divine hands will purify the souls. Here, Gibran uses a symbol, “whiteness” for referring to the soul’s purification. Then, the purified souls have to undergo the process of being pliant. Without the flexibility of thoughts, the soul cannot expand. To be spiritually awakened, the soul must have the flexibility to adapt to the divine needs.
At last, when the soul is ready to merge with the supreme being, God tests its perseverance by checking it on the “sacred fire.” In the following lines, Gibran presents the concept of transubstantiation. According to him, in the final step, the soul will be offered at God’s sacred feast in the form of the “sacred bread.”
All these things shall love do unto you
that you may know the secrets of your
heart, and in that knowledge become a
fragment of Life’s heart.
Why did the prophet throw light on this arduous process of getting salivation? In these few lines, he clarified the reason. According to him, they had to undergo these things if they wanted salvation. The love he was talking about would do such things to their souls for a purpose.
This purpose is nothing other than the concept of self-discovery. It is an important concept in spiritual awakening. If a person wants to expand his spiritual knowledge, he has to bear with these sufferings. The same applies if he wants to get spiritual love.
Through the suffering, he can unravel the mystery of his heart. Nothing is outside the soul. The truth is knowing the self is the best way to know the supreme soul. After decoding the secrets lying inside the heart, the soul becomes a part of “Life’s heart.” The poet capitalizes the first letter of “Life” for referring to God. So, here the speaker is talking about how an individual soul becomes a part of the universal soul or the creator.
But if in your fear you would seek only
love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover
your nakedness and pass out of love’s
Into the seasonless world where you
shall laugh, but not all of your laughter,
and weep, but not all of your tears.
The prophet was extremely wise. He knew after hearing the sufferings those who were around him had already thought about not choosing the way of getting divine love. Therefore, in this stanza of ‘On Love,’ he elaborates what happens to a person if he chooses worldly love over divine one.
According to him, only choosing love’s peace and pleasure is not the right way to fully understand the significance of spiritual love. This love provides solace to the soul. At the same time, it demands a person’s commitment to bear the suffering.
Using irony the speaker says if anyone chooses the positive side of love, he can easily hide the nakedness of the soul with the mortal flesh and avoid the “threshing-floor”. This “threshing-floor” is the place where the soul is purged from carnal desires. Primarily, a soul is naked when it comes to earth. When it gets habituated with living inside a human body, it fears to get back to the primary state of nakedness. The spiritual love makes the soul fearless of being naked again.
To emphasize the importance of divine love, the speaker uses a metaphor, “seasonless world.” Why is the world seasonless? A person engrossed in worldly thoughts cannot bring change to its internal ambiance. The soul remains asleep and when the time comes it fades away. Without any internal motivation, the internal world does not observe any change. It becomes seasonless.
In such a state, a person laughs and cries. But, the laughter and tears are not originating from the soul itself. They are just the reflection of bodily passions. When a person is spiritually awakened, the laughter originates directly from the soul. This state equates to eternal bliss, peacefulness, and happiness.
Love gives naught but itself and takes
naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be
For love is sufficient unto love.
From these lines, readers can understand the nature of spiritual love. It is a concept that is self-sufficient in itself. A person cannot get anything from it except what is already there. Besides, it does not demand anything. The only thing this love can take from a soul is love only. Therefore, love is what makes God fulfilled.
In the next line, there is another important concept. According to the speaker, love possesses nothing. What does this mean? It means if a soul is loving another one from a spiritual perspective there is no demand from both sides. It cannot possess anything. Neither it can be possessed. If a person thinks so, it is nothing but foolishness. This love represents God. Possessing God is the next to impossible task.
The last line again highlights the fact that this love is self-sufficient. Nothing can encompass its power. Only love can.
When you love you should not say,
“God is in my heart,” but rather, “I am
in the heart of God.”
And think not you can direct the course
of love, for love, if it finds you worthy,
directs your course.
These lines help readers to dive deeper into this concept. Through this section, Gibran how to think appropriately while someone is on the way of spirituality. While loving spiritually, a person should not think that God is there within him. This love does not make a person haughty. Rather it nurtures humbleness in the heart. Therefore he should say this divine love has given him a place in God’s heart. So, being humble is the thing that one has to always keep in mind. Besides, this love changes one’s thinking pattern too.
In the next few lines, the prophet further adds another important idea. According to him, none can direct the course of God. Nobody can go against his wish. Therefore, it is better to wait until he is chosen by the almighty. Then he can work accordingly to the divine wish. God knows how to direct the souls. A mere human soul cannot comprehend the working of divine love. So, it is better to wait and keep faith in it until it provides further directions to the soul.
Love has no other desire but to fulfill
But if you love and must needs have
desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook
that sings its melody to the night.
In this last stanza of the poem, ‘On Love’ Gibran explores the purpose of divine love in the first few lines. The prophet Al Mustafa was aware that his followers might think of what the purpose of this love was. For this reason, he clarified it to them.
According to the speaker, love has no other desire. The only motive is to fulfill itself. How can it be fulfilled? By the souls that nurture spiritual love can fulfill it. If a person truly loves there must be desires in his heart. But, the desire should be about fulfilling the purpose of the almighty.
In the last two lines, the poet personifies a brook. He does so by comparing it to human beings. According to the speaker, in spiritual awakening, the physical desires melt away. Then the soul turns into a pure state. It is like the water of a brook that babbles by in the night. In the last line, the word “night” is a symbol of worldliness.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own under-
standing of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart
and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the
beloved in your heart and a song of praise
upon your lips.
The last few lines of this stanza reiterate the way of being one with the divine spirit. According to the narrator, this love helps the soul to comprehend the meaning of pain that originates from tenderness. The understanding of divine love wounds the soul. But, those wounds are comparable with the wounds of Christ that placed him in eternal heights.
Like Christ died on the cross willingly and joyfully, a soul must be ready to accept all kinds of sufferings that come on its way of getting salvation. For those suffering, one day the person will awake with “a winged heart.” It means he can advance on the way to be spiritually one with the supreme being.
There will be no regrets in his heart. He will start salvaging each moment with happiness and will be thankful to God for giving him another day to express his love. In the following lines, by using beautiful metaphors, Gibran draws the course of life. The “noon hour” is a metaphorical reference to the spiritual awakening. In this state, the person will be meditating upon love’s ecstasy.
When his time comes, there will be gratitude in his heart. Thereafter, the metaphorical sleeping will lead the soul to its ultimate destination. Just before the final moment, he will pray to the beloved residing in his heart and sing a hymn in praise of God, the almighty.
The poem, ‘On Love’ was published in Kahlil Gibran’s poetry collection “The Prophet”. It is a collection of 26 poems and the first poem is ‘On Love’. The book was published in 1923 by Alfred A. Knopf. It has been translated into 100 different languages, making it one of the most translated books ever. More than nine million copies of this book had been sold by 2012.
Kahlil Gibran began to work on this book in 1912. That year, he met Abdul-Baha, the religious leader of the Bahai Faith. This meeting had a great impact on his mind. It is said that in Abdul-Baha he had seen the unseen and it fulfilled his spiritual need. So, the prophet referenced in this poem seems to be a representation of the religious leader who had touched Gibran deeply.
The following list contains a few poems that feature the divine aspects of love like Gibran’s poem, ‘On Love’.
- The Divine Image by William Blake – It’s one of the best-known poems of William Blake. This poem describes four divine virtues and one of them is love. Explore more poetry from William Blake.
- Love Came Down at Christmas by Christina Rossetti – It’s one of Christina Rossetti’s best poems. The most prominent theme of this piece is love that is specifically tied to religion. Read more poems by Christina Rossetti.
- Love (III) by George Herbert – This poem concentrates on sacred love by personifying love in a dialogue between a worshipper and God. Explore more George Herbert poetry.
- Give All to Love by Ralph Waldo Emerson – It’s one of the best-loved poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson. This poem passionately speaks on the transcendent power of love. Read more poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson.