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:

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


An article in the Kipling Journal (KJ 35 for Sept 1935 p.75, signed B.W.) quotes “a learned Benedictine father” who described this as ‘the most beautiful poem I have ever read.’ The article goes on to discuss the origin and background of the poem:

The MS. from which the subject is taken is no poetical invention; it really exists in the British Museum and is described as written on vellum in a fine character of the XVth Century, by two scribes. We are greatly indebted to a correspondent for this and some further information : in 1928 Messrs. George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., issued the “Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary” by Johannes Herolt, called Discipulus (1435-1440), translated from the Latin, with a preface and notes by C. C. Swinton Bland ; No. 93 of these legends is interesting in its resemblance to Kipling’s poem, so we give it below in full:

There was a certain half-witted priest who knew no mass but that of the
Blessed Lady Mary. Celebrating this mass every day and being accused of so doing, he was forbidden by the Bishop to celebrate any mass in future. Being in trouble and need, he called upon the Blessed Virgin and she appeared to him saying : ‘ Go to the Bishop and tell him from me to restore your office to you.’ The priest replied :
‘Our Lady, I am a poor man and a person of no account. He will not listen to me, nor shall I be allowed to approach him.’ Then the Blessed Virgin added : ‘Go, and I will prepare the way for you.’ He said : ‘O Lady Virgin Mary, he will not believe me.’ And she replied : ‘You shall say to him, as a sign, that at such an hour and in such a place, while he was mending his hair shirt, I held it on one side to help him, and he will at once believe you.’

In the morning entering without hindrance, the priest came to the Bishop carrying the message of the Blessed Mother of God. When he said : ‘ How am I to believe that you are sent by her,’ he added that sign relating to the hair shirt. Hearing this the prelate in amazement and alarm replied : ‘Behold I allow you again to celebrate and repeat the mass for Our Lady the Blessed Virgin and that alone ; and pray for me.’


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 Virgin in Catholic doctrine, Mary conceived Jesus virginally, and her physical virginity was preserved when he was born. See Verse 13: ‘Even the two-fold Virgin,/ Spouse and Bearer of God!’

[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

[Verse 15]

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

©Philip Holberton 2017 All rights reserved