Imran Khan misattributes a quote to Kahlil Gibran, but did media also get it wrong?

On June 19, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan ascribed a quote to Lebanese-American writer and poet, Kahlil Gibran – “I slept and dreamed that life was joy. I woke and I saw that life is all service. I served and I saw that service was joy.”

Khan’s tweet drew over 19,000 likes and more than 4,700 retweets at the time of writing.

Subsequently, mainstream media outlets carried reports claiming that Khan made a faux-pas as the quote was not Gibran’s but Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore’s. India Today, DNA, ABP News, Mid-day, Economic Times, News18, NDTV, ANI, Zee News, Times Now, Hindustan Times and Republic were some of the news organisations that called-out Khan.

Several Pakistani media outlets – Pakistan Today, Express Tribune, The News also carried similar reports.

Tagore, Gibran…or neither?

Alt News discovered that several websites had attributed the quote to both Gibran (1883 – 1931) and Tagore (1861 – 1941). However, none of these were either credible literary sources nor did they provide details such as the date of publication or where the lines first appeared.

Ellen Sturgis Hooper (1812 – 1848)

Another name that often comes up during a Google search of the quote is Ellen Sturgis Hooper, a 19th century American Transcendentalist. But the difference between the attributions to her and the ones made to Tagore and Gibran are specific details like the year of publication and the source of the verse.

The lines were a part of a poem by Hooper which was published in the 19th-20th-century American Transcendentalist magazine The Dial, according to several literary sources,

Hooper was born in 1812 and died in 1848, before the birth of both Tagore (1861) and Gibran (1883).

Here’s how her poem goes:

“I slept, and dreamed that life was Beauty;
I woke, and found that life was Duty.
Was thy dream then a shadowy lie?
Toil on, sad heart, courageously,
And thou shalt find thy dream to be
A noonday light and truth to thee.”

In an 1885 journal article, a historical and biographical introduction to The Dial, author George Willis Cooke wrote that Hooper’s poem was published in the first volume (1840) of The Dial. It was later translated into Italian and attributed to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.

The poem was published in The Dial sans Hooper’s name. This could be why it was misattributed to Kant.

Per multiple sources, Hooper had contributed 11 anonymous poems to The Dial. 

The journey of an anonymous poem

A poem that was written by American poet Ellen Sturgis Hooper, published anonymously in a magazine in 1840, was misattributed to German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Through the years, different versions of the same poem were ascribed to Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran and Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. Incidentally, similar verses have also been pushed in the name of Mother Teresa.

Same quote, multiple variations attributed to Tagore

Several versions of the quote tweeted by Imran Khan have been ascribed to Tagore. As the lines moved through time, their form kept changing while the essence remained intact.

A psychology book Being AliveHuman Structure and Functions, published in 1942, carries a version of the quote with just the first two lines. This was the earliest reference published in Tagore’s name that we were able to locate on Google books.

In a 1986 publication for UCSF volunteers, we found that the words were altered even further. The quote was attributed to the Bengali poet, but instead of “life was joy”, it said, “life was happiness”. Instead of “I served and I saw that service was joy”, it said, “I served and I found that in service happiness is found.”

There are several such examples where the form of the poem was altered. The quote does not have proper attributions to Tagore, and even Wikipedia lists it under ‘disputed’. While Imran Khan got the attribution wrong, both Indian and Pakistani media rushed to call him out without any literary backing.

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