The Prayer of Miriam Cohen

(notes by Philip Holberton)

Publication history

Verses 1, 2. and 5 of this poem were written as a heading to the tale “The Disturber of Traffic” when it was collected in Many Inventions in May 1893. Verses 3 and 4 were added when it was collected in Songs from Books in 1912, together with some slight changes in the original verses. It is listed No 595 in ORG as “Miriam Cohen” or “The Prayer of Miriam Cohen”.

It is collected in

  • Songs from Books (1912)
  • InclusiveVerse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition vols v and xxxiv
  • The Burwash Edition vols v and xxvii
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 788.

The poem

In his Notes on “The Disturber of Traffic” in this Guide, Peter Havholm points out the (rather distant) connection between poem and story.

The last verse is perhaps most apropos to this tale about a lighthouse keeper whose ‘head began to feel streaky from looking at the tide so long’..

“The Disturber of Traffic” is about a man whose mind gives way under the pressure of his obsessions. Andrew Lycett (p. 233) notes:

When two years later Rudyard collected this story in his book Many Inventions he prefaced it with his mysterious “The Prayer of Miriam Cohen”, indicating that his [Kipling’s] problems came from a hyperactive mind occasionally overreaching itself and trying to delve too deeply into the secrets of the universe. For this poem, later expanded from three to five stanzas, states that man needs the shroud of revealed religion in his quest for meaning in life: staring into the void is too blinding. Rudyard’s plea:

A veil ‘twixt us and Thee, dread Lord,
A veil ‘twixt us and Thee:
Lest we should hear too clear, too clear,
And unto madness see!

should be read as a milestone on his journey of spiritual enlightenment.

Later (p. 427) Lycett writes of ‘Rudyard’s religious premise that one should not look too closely into the mind of God, for that way madness lies.’

“Miriam Cohen” is a Jewish name. Kipling does not say why he chose it, and J M S Tompkins (p. 104) confesses her bafflement:

They (the verses) are printed over the name of Miriam Cohen, which I do not understand … They are a prayer for a veil between the human soul and the Lord, a plea to be spared the sight of God’s toil in the universe, and the madness that follows the vision.

However, in 2002 Eric Cohen, from Wisconsin U.S.A., wrote to the Kipling Society saying that as his wife’s name was Miriam, he would like to know the background to this poem. Roger Ayers responded:

One may speculate upon what prompted Kipling to write “The Prayer of Miriam Cohen”, since it provided him with the stanzas at the head of “The Disturber of Traffic” … In that story, Dowse, the lighthouse keeper, with nothing between himself and God, goes mad with loneliness. The prayer asks God to veil Himself from the intercessor, Miriam Cohen. Why Miriam?

Kipling was well versed in the King James Version of the Bible, and I believe he took
Miriam from “Miriam the Prophetess”, sister of Moses and Aaron, who wanted to look too closely at God and was stricken with leprosy and died in the desert of Zin. (Numbers, 20) Why Miriam Cohen? I suggest that Kipling put the prayer in the mouth of a modern Miriam who did not wish to suffer the fate of her biblical namesake and by association,
that of Dowse – keeper of the Wurlee Light.

To modernise her, Kipling surnames her Cohen, which by the end of the 19th century was
sometimes used as a blanket name for Jews in the same way as Smith,
Brown and Robinson were used to represent the average Englishmen.
A later example of this, directly associated with Kipling, can be found
in the first publication by the Imperial War Graves Commission,
explaining how the British war dead would be buried in War
Cemeteries and their graves marked or, if they had no known grave,
how their names would be recorded.

As a Commissioner and as one who lost his own son in the War, Kipling wrote the booklet with great sensitivity. It also has drawings of the planned cemeteries, cenotaphs,
memorials and examples of the three types of grave marker. Two
Christian examples have Robinson and Smith, and the Jewish marker
bears the name Cohen. [R.A.]

[KJ 301 for March 2002, p. 59]

Notes on the Text


face ‘meet’ in the original version.

The faggot and the sword Methods of execution: a faggot is a bundle of sticks for fuel, specifically one used to burn a heretic alive at the stake.

[Verse 2 ]

Thy Works ‘Thy toil’ in the original. The verse is a plea to be spared the experience of God’s wars in heaven. There may be echoes of Revelation 12,7 ‘There was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon’; and of Judges 5,20 ‘The stars in their courses fought against Sisera.

[Verse 4]

conceal: here this word is a request: ‘please hide’. The line is easier to understand with a different word order: ‘Conceal Thy Path, Thy Purposes…’

[Verse r]

Good Lord ‘dread Lord’ in the original. This change does not seem to be an improvement. One asks a ‘dread’ God to veil His Face rather than a ‘Good’ one.


©Philip Holberton 2018 All rights reserved