Tag Archives: story of abraham

‘The parable of the old man and the young’ by Wilfred Owen

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

This poem retells the story of Abraham and his son, Isaac. At the beginning of the poem, you could almost believe that it is going to be a conventional telling of the story, because it sounds just like the Bible translation. It is not until you read the description of Abram’s preparations of “fire and iron” that it becomes clear that this is a different version of the old parable. Owen creates a clear depiction of the particular war in which he was fighting, with the “belts and straps”, and the “parapets and trenches”.

In the original story from the bible, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son for Him. Abraham goes to do this, preparing an altar and a knife, but at the last minute, God tells him to stop. God tells Abraham to sacrifice a Ram instead. Abraham is relieved and sacrifices the Ram in the place of his son, and Isaac lives.

In this poem, Wilfred Owen has changed Abraham into a symbol of the politicians of Europe, sending the young men to die in their millions during the First World War. It is a recurring theme in much of the poetry from the Great War — the horror and disgust that the soldiers and soldier-poets felt at the reality of old, rich men sending the young masses to the trenches be slaughtered. Siegfried Sassoon (fellow poet and friend of Wilfred Owen) describes similar disgust for the ignorant men who sent the masses to their deaths in his poem Base Details:

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. “Poor young chap,”
I’d say–“I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.”
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die–in bed.

I wanted to post Sassoon’s poem here because I think that it is interesting to see the difference between Sassoon’s tone and Owen’s. You can feel the anger in Base Details — but Sassoon has channelled his anger into a satirical piece that uses irony to mock what he called “callous complacence” (in his letter, A soldier’s declaration, which was read out to the House of Commons in 1917).

In both Sassoon’s and Owen’s poems there is a strong sense of the futility of the slaughter of the soldiers, but I am personally more drawn to Owen’s poem because I prefer the tragic tone rather than the satire of Sassoon…

Owen’s contempt for the politicians is clear in ‘The parable of the old man and the young’ as he talks about the “Ram of Pride”. The angel in the poem asks Abram to sacrifice his Pride instead of his son, but Abram “would not so”. Here you can see the disgust that Owen has for the politicians and perhaps for civilians too, like Sassoon. How can we not have contempt for one who would sacrifice his son (and “half the seed of Europe”) rather than his Pride?

I love the way that Owen has separated the final two lines of the poem, because it sets them apart and emphasises their importance and tragedy:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

There is, to me, a real sense of powerlessness in these lines; even God could not stop Abram from killing his son and the sons of Europe. That phrase “half the seed of Europe” delivers such a sense of waste. The description of Abram as “the old man” is very evocative, I think, of a miserly creature — it is a description that has very negative connotations. Isaac, however, is an innocent victim, like the soldiers.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh