Our Lady of the Sackcloth

(notes by Philip Holberton)


First published in the Morning Post on April 15th, 1935. Listed in ORG as No 1224.

Collected in:

  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxviii (1941)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Pinney, p. 1455


Wendy Laura Belcher writes from the Princeton Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Egyptian Miracles of Mary Project :

This particular poem was inspired by one of Budge’s translations from the Täˀammərä Maryam, the Ethiopian book of Marian Miracles. In our ID system, we call this ID 145. You should know that there is an earlier European version of this story. The Gəˁəz version is adapted from the Arabic version, adapted from Latin in the 1200s.s. [Budge, E. A. Wallis, ed. 1933. One Hundred and Ten Miracles of Our Lady Mary, pp. 332-333. London: Oxford University Press, H. Milford. Miracle CII]


THERE was a certain priest whose duty it was to recite the daily prayers of Mary the Virgin, and he knew no other Office. And the congregation complained about him to the Bishop, saying, “This priest can only recite one Office, namely, that of Mary.” And the Bishop said unto him, “Be patient until thou canst make thyself strong.” And this priest was sad and he wept because of his love for our Lady Mary, and he dwelt in the court of the Bishop. Now the Bishop was a God-fearing man, and a lover of prayer, and he kept vigil in sackcloth; and the sackcloth was underneath his apparel, so that men might not know that it was there. And the Bishop did not know either how to cut the sackcloth or to sew it, and he laid it out in front of him, and he wondered what he could possibly do with it. And he said, “If I give it to [any] man he will know about my vigil, and my fast will be in vain”; and thus saying he wept. And because of this spiritual excellence of the Bishop our Lady Mary came to him, and took up the piece of sackcloth and cut it and sewed it for him, and she said unto him, “Take it, it will be good for thee”; and straightway he worshipped her and she dis appeared from him. And then she went out and found that priest with a sorrowful heart and a bowed head, and she said unto him, “What is thy sorrow?” Now he did not know that she was our Lady, and he said unto her, “Let me alone; I am in trouble.” And she said unto him, “Tell me, so that I may give thee relief.” And he said unto her, “Hearken unto me, O Lady, I know no other Office except that of the Virgin Mary. And the congregation have complained about me to the Bishop, and he saith, Thou must not minister. And because of this I am sad for the sake of my love for Mary.” And Mary said unto him, “Go and say unto the Bishop: Set him free and give him leave to celebrate the Offering.” And the priest said unto her, “He will not hearken unto me, and he will not accept my words.” And she said unto him, “Say unto the priest: ‘Set him free and let him minister’; thus saith unto thee the woman who cut thy sackcloth, and sewed up the ragged portions thereof.” And the priest came to the Bishop, and he bowed the knee and stood up before him, and he said unto him, “A great lady, whom peradventure thou knowest, hath sent me,” and he told him all that our Lady Mary had said unto him. And when the Bishop heard him, he rose up and kissed his head, and made him to sit down before him, and he said unto him, “Thou shalt not recite any other Office except that of Mary. Thy lodging shall be here with me. Eat what I eat and drink what I drink. And as for these people who complained about thee they shall be put to shame.” And all those who saw marvelled, and those who heard prayed the prayer of our Lady Mary.

Daniel Hadas comments: how nice to think that, as he approached his 70th birthday, Kipling was paying attention to new translations of medieval Ethiopian texts!

J M S Tompkins (p. 216) groups this poem with two others that use ‘the language and figures of the Christian faith’:

Later in his life, when the compassion that is apparent at all stages in his work, though not in all he wrote, strengthened into a conception of absolving love and mercy, he turned sometimes to the language and figures of the Christian faith. He does this very seldom, and always at a remove. The ballads of “Cold Iron”, ”Eddi’s Service” and “Our Lady of the Sackcloth” have the reserve of their traditional form.


Notes on the Text


Our Lady: the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. Sackcloth Coarse cloth worn next to the skin as a penance. See Verse 10.

[Verse 1]

Philae: a town on the Nile in Egypt, best known for a temple to the goddess Isis.

[Verse 2]

two-fold  Daniel Hadas notes: See Budge (above), p xlvi: Throughout the Miracles, the Virgin Mary is called the “two-fold Virgin”, but nowhere in them is the title explained. It may be that the Ethiopians attributed to  Mary a two-fold nature, one human and one divine, and that they, in consequence,  ascribed to her two-fold virginity.  Or  the  appellation  may  refer to her own virginity and to that of her mother, who conceived her immaculately  [D.H.]

[Verse 4]

When the Bread and the Body are one: in the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, when a priest says the words of consecration the bread on the altar becomes the real Body of Christ.

the picture of Mary: there is a picture or icon of Mary above the altar where the priest is saying Mass.

[Verse 8]

the Wine and the Blood are one: at the Consecration the wine on the altar becomes the actual Blood of Christ (see Verse 4 above).

[Verse 9] The Bishop mortifies his body for the sake of his soul.

fast: eating very little food

scourge: he whips himself as a penance

vigil: he stays awake praying

[Verse 11]

shears: scissors to cut the cloth

the palm: a pad to protect his hand when he sews with a large needle

packthread: string suitable for sewing the coarse sackcloth

Let any should know and praise:   See the admonitions to pray and fast in secret at Matthew 6.5.-6 and 6.16-18. [D.H.]

[Verse 15]

the Bishop’s eyes were opened: he recognises his visitor as the Virgin Mary

©Philip Holberton 2017 All rights reserved