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Fear by Khalil Gibran

“Fear” is written by Khalil Gibran, a Lebanese poet, writer, and visual artist of the late 1800s and early 1900s. He is known for his book The Prophet (1923) and also for his mystical Arabic and English works. In the poem “Fear,” Gibran shares his profound wisdom about overcoming fear. The speaker contemplates a river flowing into the ocean. At the end of its journey, the river must realize that it is not about the risk of disappearing forever but about the trust of being a part of something so great and immense. Thus through the emotions of the river, the poet constructs a strong message for humankind who fear losing their identity, death, change, being left unrecognized in this vast universe, and so forth.

  • Read the full text of “Fear” below:
Fear
by Khalil Gibran

It is said that before entering the sea 
A river trembles with fear.

She looks back at the path she has traveled,
from the peaks of the mountains,
the long winding road crossing forests and villages.

And in front of her,
she sees an ocean so vast,
that to enter
there seems nothing more than to disappear forever.

But there is no other way.
The river can not go back.

Nobody can go back. 
To go back is impossible in existence.

The river needs to take the risk 
of entering the ocean
because only then will fear disappear
because that’s where the river will know
it’s not about disappearing into the ocean,
but of becoming the ocean.
Analysis of Fear by Khalil Gibran


Summary

“Fear” by Khalil Gibran speaks about the poet’s observation of what a river feels when after traveling through the steep mountains and “long winding road[s]” reaches a point where it has to merge with the vast ocean lying in front of her. The poet uses “she” to infuse life into the river. Though the speaker talks about the river and her fear, in reality, he hints at humankind’s fear of death, the ultimate destination.

The poem can be divided into two parts; the first part is where the speaker talks about the fear that human beings feel, the urge to relive their past lives, and “to go back” that is “impossible in existence.” The second part focuses on their fears. Through this section, the speaker advises them to acknowledge there is no other way. Thus, they are required to take risks and have faith in themselves.

Meaning

The poem deals with the universal fear that each and every one of us faces in life. The fear of dissolving into the ocean refers to a number of different emotions one feels. It can be the fear of death that humans have to confront in their life; it can be the change that makes us afraid; the terror of losing our personal identity; or our personal belongings and merging with the divine consciousness. “Fear” teaches us that just like the river that is afraid to go forward, many of us are terrified to take the final leap and “look back” at the past, as in the poem, Gibran says, “She looks back at the path she traveled.”

The poem also denotes the journey of becoming something. Humans become aware of their fears during the journey. The journey we undertook, the pain we suffered, the joy we experienced – all seem to come to a halt when we see the vastness of the universe. It is about the agitation of leaving our comfort zone and taking risks to achieve something so unbelievably larger than life. In this journey of life, we lose many dear things, but the process of moving forward should not cease. As the streams of the river cannot flow back, so is our life.

The poem ends with a beautiful promise of the reward one will get when they choose to move forward and face their fears: “it’s not about disappearing into the ocean,/ But of becoming the ocean.”

Structure & Form

The poem is written in free-verse with no specific rhyme scheme and meter. It consists of three couplets, one tercet, one quatrain, and a six-line stanza at the end. Though the text follows no specific rhyme scheme, readers notice a rhyming pattern in the third stanza, “And in front of her,/ she sees an ocean so vast,/ that to enter/ there seems nothing more than to disappear forever.” Throughout the poem, the lines are loosely arranged. There is no specific metric scheme. However, the poem is mainly composed of iambic feet. The rising rhythm of an iamb encourages others to face their fears.

Poetic Devices

Gibran makes use of the following poetic devices in his poem “Fear”:

  • Allegory: Although the poem is seen through the eyes of a river that is afraid to join with the vast spread of the ocean, there is a hidden meaning under the surface of the poem that directly interacts with the reader’s mind. In the lines, “The river needs to take the risk/ of entering the ocean,” through the reference to the river, the speaker actually addresses readers. He urges them to take risks and not to hold back.
  • Alliteration: The poet uses words like “she sees” and “to take,” which begin with the same sounds to create internal rhymings.
  • Enjambment: The poet uses fewer sentences in the poem. The stanzas consist of a single sentence broken down into several lines; for instance, the lines: “She looks back at the path she has traveled,/ from the peaks of the mountains,/ the long winding road crossing forests and villages.” The use of small letters at the beginning of each line suggests that it is a part of a single line.
  • Personification: Throughout the poem, the river is given human traits. This is indicated in lines like: “a river trembles with fear,” “The river needs to take the risk,” “She looks back at the path…”, etc.
  • Irony: The irony is that though Khalil accepts to merge with the ocean as a risk, at the same time, he says that is the only way to freedom: “But there is no other way.”
  • Assonance: The vowel sound “o” is prominently heard in the line: “the long winding road crossing forests and villages.”
  • Consonance: The consonant sound “s” is heard repeatedly in the line: “she sees an ocean so vast.”
  • Repetition: This device is used to convey the core message of the poem. The words “go back” are repeated in the poem thrice in consecutive lines: “The river can not go back./ Nobody can go back/ To go back is impossible in existence.”
  • Anaphora: When the same words are repeated at the beginning of consecutive lines to emphasize their importance, it is called anaphora. In the lines: “because only then will fear disappear/ because that’s when the river will know.”


Line-by-Line Analysis & Appreciation

Lines 1-5

It is said that before entering the sea 

A river trembles with fear.

She looks back at the path she has traveled,

from the peaks of the mountains,

the long winding road crossing forests and villages.

At the beginning of the poem, the phrase “it is said that” indicates this is not entirely Gibran’s view. He heard about the river’s fear, and so he may have decided to give some strength to it through the poem. He compares humans to the river and says just like a river that trembles before entering the vast ocean, so are human beings.

As the river looks back at the journey it undertook in the mountains, forests, and villages; humans too look back at their past instead of moving forward. It remembers how bravely it cut through all the steep slopes and winding roads which provides her some strength to flow forward. Somehow, the thought of dissolving into the ocean holds the river back. It knows it has to, but something deep inside its soul harks, “I can’t!”

Lines 6-11

And in front of her,

she sees an ocean so vast,

that to enter

there seems nothing more than to disappear forever.

But there is no other way.

The river can not go back.

In the third stanza, the source of the river’s fear is clear, that is, the fear of disappearing into the ocean once and forever. As the river stands in front of the vast body of water, the fear takes hold of its thoughts. It seems that nothing else can come out of it other than her losing itself. Still, that is the only option left for it. The river cannot trace back to the path behind it. Thus, it has to strive forward as it is time to face its greatest fear.

Lines 12-19

Nobody can go back. 

To go back is impossible in existence.

The river needs to take the risk 

of entering the ocean

because only then will fear disappear

because that’s where the river will know

it’s not about disappearing into the ocean,

but of becoming the ocean.

In these lines, the poet speaks from the river’s point of view and says that going back is not an option. It’s “impossible in existence,” so the river has to take the step of plunging forward.

It has to take the risk of merging with the ocean; otherwise, the fear will never go off its thoughts. Like the river, we have to take risks to conquer and overcome our greatest fear. It is not about losing one’s identity; it is more about “becoming” part of something larger than life, divine, and beautiful. Overall, this poem is all about believing in ourselves and overcoming fear. We have to dare “becoming the ocean.”

Theme

Khalil Gibran’s poem “Fear” deals with a number of themes. The major themes of the poem include the fear of changing consciousness, the terror of moving forward, the anxiety of losing oneself, the chilling shiver of leaving the comfort zone, the journey of life till death, and so on. This poem is open to different interpretations. Readers can appreciate the text in various ways. The starting line itself introduces the central theme of fear: “It is said that before entering the sea/ a river trembles with fear.”

Message

In this poem, Gibran explains clearly that to face one’s fear, one should always believe in themselves and go forward without looking back at the past. The poem takes us through the journey of life till we meet death, the inevitable. We must have the courage to conquer our fear of death and be part of something so vast and serene. Like the river, we have to understand in the end, it’s not about disappearing but about “becoming the ocean.” The final leap in one’s life concerns becoming part of the vastness rather than losing their identity.

Historical Context

Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) mainly wrote in Arabic and English. His direct and straightforward literary works inspire readers to date. He was part of the symbolism movement. His works mostly resonated with the experiences of the reader, and so he gained many admirers and imitators in a short time. His poem, “Fear,” showcases his profound wisdom about overcoming fear. Besides, Gibran explored many genres such as poetry, parables, fables, aphorisms, short stories, and political essays. He is best remembered for his book, The Prophet, a collection of twenty-six prose poetry fables, first published in 1923.

Questions & Answers

What is “Fear” by Khalil Gibran about?

Khalil Gibran’s poem is about the fear we all encounter in different situations in our lives. In this poem, the river fears entering the vast ocean as it thinks it will disappear forever. Still, it has to take the plunge as “only then will fear disappear.”

What is the central message of the poem “Fear”?

The central message of the poem is “overcoming fear,” but it also tells us about other truths like the irreversibility of the time or to relive the past existence. It is totally impossible.

What is the theme of the poem “Fear”?

Gibran uses several themes in this poem that include the fear of change, death, and losing oneself in the vastness, the irreversibility of time, overcoming fear, moving forward, etc.

How can one conquer fear?

One can conquer fear only by taking risks and striving ahead without looking back at the past.

What does “Nobody can go back” mean in the poem?

The poem uses “go back” thrice to emphasize its significance, that no one can trace their path backward. Life is about moving on; though we lose our dear friends and families, the journey must go on.


Similar Poems about Fear

  • Fear” by Gabriela Mistral — This poem concerns a mother’s fear of losing contact with her daughter as she grows up.
  • If you were coming in the Fall” by Emily Dickinson — This poem taps on a speaker’s underlying anxiety, desperation, and loneliness as she waits for her lover’s return.
  • Something Told the Wild Geese” by Rachel Field — In this poem, Field describes how the wild geese fear the coming of winter.
  • Exile” by Julia Alvarez — This personal poem describes how the poet had to leave her country in her childhood, with a variety of emotions churning inside her mind.


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