The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

Posted: November 12, 2013 in Poetry
Tags: , , , ,

‘Through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’

I want to write a little about one of my favourite poems: Wilfred Owen’s The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.

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.

Like all poetry this should be heard rather than read. The Northern Irish actor Kenneth Branagh has recorded most of Owen’s poetry and you can listen to his rendition here if you wish. But for me at least, Branagh’s readings of Owen’s poetry, beautiful diction though they have, leave me cold. There is real anger and real sadness in The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, anger and sadness that Branagh’s reading totally misses. I prefer the very simple reading at the end of the magnificent 1997 film Regeneration (here). If you watch the whole film, the poem, when it comes, will have you in tears. It’s still not angry enough for me, but very moving nonetheless.

I first read this poem at school more than forty years ago. Our English teacher was, I think, a bit of a closet radical. Coming back to it now I thought the poem’s meaning was so obvious that no one would ever need to spend more than a minute or two on interpretation. Yet actually that’s probably not correct. The reason why the ‘meaning’ of the poem is so obvious to me is because I was brought up at a time and in a society where knowledge of the Bible and of the First World War was just there. Every day we had Bible readings in school. Our grandparents had experienced the war and many of our teachers had lived through it. In much of the western world this is no longer the case. In many, many ways this is a good thing. Thank God (oops!) children don’t have to have horrendous biblical bunkum pushed down their throats. Thank God most western children no longer have to hear about the massacre of whole generations. But when it comes to canonical poetry or literature there’s a bit of a gap.

This became clear to me when I wrote a couple of short pieces on poetry, in particular one about A. E. Housman’s Blue Remembered Hills. I soon realised that this poem must be on the curriculum of quite a few American schools or colleges. At least every few weeks a school teacher in the US sets his or her students a task of writing a critique or interpretation of Blue Remembered Hills. And, lo and behold, it seems that the students don’t read the poem and think about what it means to them or even try to figure out for themselves what the poet might have meant. No, what they do is go straight onto the internet looking for someone else’s ready-made interpretation which they can then, at best, use or, at worst, plagiarize.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

Now for every ten students who cut and paste or simply plagiarize there will be one who is really moved and wants to offer their own penny worth. Perhaps it was ever thus.

We might even want to question (I hope not) the relevance of old canonical novels, plays and poetry. After all for school and college students today the Boer War which Housman alludes to and the First World War which is the immediate subject of Owen’s poetry are ancient history. Be that as it may.

Let’s return to The Parable of the Old Man and the Young. It is of course an anti-war poem, but it is so much more than that. It’s also a denunciation of imperialistic capitalism and a searing indictment of the warped morality of sacrifice. Whose sacrifice and for whom?

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young is an allegory based on the Old Testament story (or parable if you like) found in Genesis 22 and usually called The Binding of Isaac. This story is, like most in the Old Testament, a pretty evil story, completely lacking in anything that we would regard as moral today:

The Binding of Isaac

Sometime later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.  On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.  He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.  So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

Caravaggio's Sacrifice of Isaac

Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac

God had asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Abraham didn’t even hesitate. He started straight away to prepare the sacrificial altar: ‘Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife… Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.’ Isaac in his innocence didn’t get what his father was doing: ‘The fire and wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Abraham avoided the question and lied: ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’

No hesitation, no compassion. Abraham just had to obey God’s word. ‘Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.’ Then and only then do we get one of the original Deus ex machina. Just as he was about to slay his son God stops him:

Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.

Because Abraham had been more than ready to obey, God let him off the hook. He could sacrifice ‘a ram caught by its horns’ instead. God was very pleased with the result of his little charade and rewarded Abraham:

I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.

A more pitiless, immoral tale it would be hard to find. What on earth can this ‘lovely’ story or parable teach us except unthinking obedience to a remote and all powerful God? But at least Isaac had been spared, even though this seems to have mattered not one iota to his father.

In Owen’s The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, Isaac, who represents the millions of young men slaughtered in the trenches of the First World War, is not spared. Abram (an earlier form of Abraham) is the heartless omnipotent power; he is the ‘old’ power of the imperialistic, militaristic states. The power of money, position and pride. This power, just like God, demands obedience and sacrifice, the sacrifice not of their power but of ‘the young’. As in the Old Testament the young ask an obvious innocent question:

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

‘Fire and iron’ to make the weapons of war are being prepared, but who will be the sacrificial ‘lamb’? Like the Biblical Isaac they got no answer:

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.

The young were kitted out in ‘belts and straps’. Parapets and trenches were dug ready for the knife to fall, ready for the sacrifice of a whole generation. God’s angel tries to offer a helping hand and a way out:

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.

There was no reason for this war, no fight of good against evil. It was just the useless pride of the rulers that prevented them from seeing reason. If they had been willing to sacrifice the ‘Ram of Pride’ instead of their own people, the slaughter could have been avoided. But no, the rulers were more pitiless than God:

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

In the heartless Bible Abraham’s people (the later Jews) were rewarded: ‘Through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’ In our time there is no redemption, not even an offer of future glory. The power must be obeyed, the people are sacrificed.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s