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 stretchèd 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, and slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfrid Owen
I worry often that the full force of this poem is lost on generations younger than mine, who were not brought up on the Authorised version of the Bible the way I was, and do not know the texts that it contains, no longer have our sure-footed control of its language, and therefore cannot feel the cold fury to be found in every line of this poem that is written in that language and that lives off those texts. God knows, the original readers of this poem would have felt it clearly enough. Benjamin Britten certainly did, for one. And you don't have to be a believer.
I like, too, the way his appropriation of the finger-wagging tone that this language always seems to our ears to have enables him to drive home an - entirely serious - message that is quite different from those usually conveyed in that language.

I do remember my friend Ismay Barwell saying that when, as a child, she encountered the story of Abraham being prepared to sacrifice Isaac it struck her as so completely, entirely and unquestionably bonkers - what kind of parent would so much as consider sacrificing their child, after all? - that it totally and permanently destroyed any trust she might ever otherwise have had in the other messages that might have been available from the body of texts whence that appalling narrative came. For my part i don't remember being that appalled. I think i just supposed that the adult world was a bizarre place and it would all become clear In Due Course. But then she was an Oldest and had much more confidence in her own judgement than i, a youngest, would have. And when i did eventually learn the adult world's explanation, you know, submission to God's will and so on, i had by then acquired some confidence in my own judgement and i just thought [family show or no] well, actually, bollocks, sorry....

If this poem does not chill your blood and bring tears of rage to your eyes then you have been deprived of something, have lost part of your heritage. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I think this poem has to be read aloud, with special attention to line 8, which has to be read as something censored that has somehow broken through, a 20th century irruption into the reassuring world of the Authorised version. Owen is quite right to make only limited use of this device, since the poem relies on the 17th century language to get past our defences.

I confess to having [slightly] doctored the text, particularly the punctuation.
Click here for next week's poem
Click here for last week's poem

Return to Thomas Forster's home page