The Prayer of Miriam Cohen

The Prayer of
Miriam Cohen


(notes by Philip Holberton)

the poem
[April 8th 2018]

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'..
“Miriam Cohen” is a Jewish name. Kipling does not say why he chose it, and no commentator has managed to explain it. 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.
"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.'

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