‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ is an unusual poem that doesn’t use a traditional rhyme scheme. It is one of his early poems, it not one of his well known one and therefore is not as popular with students.
Its subject matter is the biblical story of the ascent of Abraham up Mount Moriah and his near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac. Owen compares this sacrifice to the beginning of World War One in the final lines. He blames the various countries leaders ‘Pride’ for the sacrifice of innocent young men.
A parable can
be defined as a short tale or story that is intended to be allegorical in nature. This means that it is a story that teaches a moral or religious lesson. Jesus often used parables in teaching Christianity and the idea of the parable has been used in Western literature and can be in prose or verse as our text is. Here Owen uses a biblical story adapts it to suit his purpose – to teach us about the pointlessness of war. He is being didactic (to teach). He uses a well-known old testament story and then fractures/disrupts the usual narrative. He uses language with an archaic, biblical air. He is parodying the bible.
Clearly, this poem has a lot of biblical references to it. The next piece of information to help you understand this poem is the storey of Abraham. This is the Bible story of the Book of Genesis (reprinted on the next page). In the story, God is asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah. Abraham begins to do this without hesitation and binds his son to the altar. Suddenly the angel of God stopped him, and Abraham sacrificed a nearby ram instead. In this poem, Owen wants to horror and confront his readers.
This is a story of sacrifice and this is how Owen saw the death of so many young and innocent men. He says the old men should not have bowed to pride and this would have saved all the young men who were sacrificed.
‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ is another poem by Owen to show the waste and futility of war. He uses the biblical story of ‘Abram’ to develop the images of sacrifice in the poem and these sacrifices for him were the hallmark of the war. Before you study this poem it is important to look at the glossary, as there are words that are archaic used and some of the meanings have changed in modern usage.
The poem starts with the irony that ‘Abram,’ the father of all nations, is going to sacrifice his son. How can anyone be the father of all nations if all the young men are dead? Remember that this is not the exact retelling of the parable and that Owen surely integrates the old biblical story and the war. This is obvious by the middle of the poem with the lines,
‘Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps, and builded parapets and trenches there,’
By including words that refer to modern warfare, he moves the from the bible story and places it into WWI.
Here he sojourned’ with Isaac, who asks him where the lamb is for the burnt offering. Before he can get any answer, he’s ‘bound’ and ‘stretched forth the knife.’ Just before he can be killed an angel calls out,
‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad’ Neither do anything to him, thy son.’
And then he tells them about the ‘Ram.’ We hear a directive to kill RAM OF PRIDE – this is a direct comment from the powers of WWI that they would rather kill their citizens than lose pride. Note: not making a side comment. Old men cannot see the error of their ways, and they fight for nothing more than pride.
The old man ignores this and ‘slew the son,’ and Owen extends this to ‘half; the seed of Europe.’ Note that it is only the last two lines of the poem that rhyme, and this is where Owen’s warning of war is given. This is the true condemnation of any leader who sacrifices young men to their own ego. We know that Owen focuses on the waste and futility of war, and he reinforces that. Owen blames the ruling elite of Europe for the war, and the poem gives us a clear message. Some critics have also suggested that the blind faith and loyalty Abraham had in God cannot be translated into the real world. Others have suggested that Owen is saying that blind faith in anything is wrong. You should think about these ideas and decide which you think Owen means.