Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Wilfred Owen - The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

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, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. 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.

Key words
      Parable – a short story which illustrates a moral or religious lesson

What is the poem about?
Owen takes directly from the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac in this poem (see the document marked “Abraham” to see which bits he’s borrowed directly). The poem talks about the sacrifice Abraham offers God and how an angel saved his son at the last minute. However, in the poem, the man goes ahead and sacrifices his son anyway. It is an attack on those in charge of the war.

      The poem roughly follows the story as set out in Genesis 22 until the stanza break – why does the poet break the stanza here? – it is a changed ending and therefore provides a twist. A dramatic pause.
      A shift occurs after line 6 – from the traditional Bible story to WW1
      Is there a rhyme scheme? What is the effect? – no real rhyme scheme (though you could say the final two lines almost form a rhyming couplet: one/son) – which makes the poem quite disjointed and loose – reflecting how destructive the war is and how things are falling apart.

The poet uses Biblical language like “clave” (cut) and “sojourned” (rested) to mimic the original story and give the poem authority.
When the poem shifts to WW1 (line 6 onwards), “the youth” suddenly becomes all the young men of Europe – like “the Young” of the title. They are bound with “belts and straps” (soldiers’ uniform) and “parapets and trenches” are built (obviously a reference to the structures in the war). At the last minute, the “youth” are saved by an angel – God provides an alternative: “the Ram of Pride”. Pride is, Owen suggests, the reason for the war (perhaps patriotism, a desperation not to be seen as cowardly) – and God suggests that is killed instead of the youth.
We then get a pause: “But the old man would not” – the old man is representative of those in charge of the war, sacrificing “his son” – all the men who have gone to their deaths who are, of course, somebody’s son. The scale of the deaths is emphasised through the phrase “half the seed of Europe” – with seed representing both their own youth and the children they would have had – their lost futures, Europe’s lost generations. “one by one” suggests that the death and the war just goes on and on with no end.

By mimicking a parable from the Bible, Owen suggests that the war is going against the teachings of God as the old man in the parable goes directly against what God advises.

In summary
      A reworking of Genesis 22, the story of Abraham and Isaac.
      A symbolic poem which attacks the “old men” in charge of the war who are sacrificing the youth, needlessly.
      A suggestion that the war is going against God’s teachings.

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