The Prayer of Miriam Cohen

(notes by Philip Holberton and Daniel Hadas)

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]

Daniel Hadas adds:

I believe Roger Ayers is on the right track in linking this poem to the Biblical Miriam. However, there’s no obvious Scriptural support for his statement that Miriam ” wanted to look too closely at God”. Rather Miriam is forced to confront God in the pillar of cloud (Number 12.5), as a punishment for speaking against Moses (Numbers 12.1). Miriam is struck with leprosy when God departs (Numbers 12.10), but it’s misleading to say she “was stricken with leprosy and died in the desert of Zin”. One would infer from this that she died of leprosy, but in fact, Moses intercedes for her, and she is purified after 7 days (Numbers 12.11-15). Miriam’s death is reported at Numbers 20.1, but no cause is given.

The surname Cohen reinforces the link with the biblical Miriam, because Cohen, meaning “priest”, is the surname belonging to notional descendants of Aaron, the first Jewish priest, and Miriam’s brother (see here).  Kipling’s choice to make this poem about a Jew is, I think, illuminated by 2 Corinthians 3.13-16:

And not as Moses, which put a veil over his face, that the children of Israel could not steadfastly look to the end of that which is abolished: But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ. But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the vail is upon their heart. Nevertheless, when it shall turn to the Lord, the veil shall be taken away.

St Paul is referring here to Exodus 34.33-35, where Moses veils his face when communicating to the people of Israel what God has told him on Sinai, and removes the veil when he goes back to speak with God. Moses wears a veil because “the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come nigh him” (Exodus 34.30). In St Paul’s interpretation of this story, the veil between man and God is a permanent condition of the Jewish people who choose not to follow Christ. That’s bad, in St Paul’s view, but Kipling, with his typical lack of Christian orthodoxy, sees it as necessary. The Jews goes from outcasts to symbols of all mankind, and the whole poem repeatedly inverts the Biblical theme that proximity to God is to be desired. Lastly, it may be worth pondering that Miriam is the same name as Mary, and the Virgin Mary was closest of all mortals to God. [D.H.]


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 3]

Lest we should dream what Dream awaits:   Reminiscent of Hamlet’s “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come?   (III.1). [D.H.]

[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…’

Thy Path, Thy Purposes us conceal:  Contrast Psalm 25.4: Show me thy ways, O Lord. Teach my thy paths (similarly psalms 27.11; 86.11). [D.H.]

[Verse 5]

A Veil twixt us and Thee 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.

Daniel Hadas adds::  Form and language echo the refrain of the hymn “Nearer, my God, to thee”. There’s a point to this, since Miriam’s prayer is precisely not to get too close to God.  See also, by way of contrast, psalm 4.6: Lord lift up the light of thy countenance upon us; psalm 31.16: Make thy face to shine upon thy servant: save me for thy mercies’ sake.  [D.H.]

Lest we should hear too clear:  See Isaiah 6.9-10:

And He said, “Go, and tell this people:

Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
Make the heart of this people dull,
And their ears heavy,
And shut their eyes;
Lest they see with their eyes,
And hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart,
And return and be healed.

This is quoted by Christ in Matthew 13.14-15. Again what Isaiah and then Christ present as a curse, Miriam sees as something to pray for. [D.H.]




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