The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

If the Old Testament account of the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abram is really a parable in the Christian sense it is one that Owen neatly turns upon its head.

It probably dates from his time at Ripon - Hibberd says no later than early June 1918. Before Owen returned to Scarborough on 5th June he was in buoyant mood, his surroundings agreeable, health good, poetry going well, and it may be that late March into April affords a closer tie between the poem's cynical twist and the mind-set of the poet.

On 31st March he was writing of his young French friend Johnny de la Touche, 'He must be a creature of killable age by now.'

The same letter shows him admonishing stay-at-home civilians:

'God so hated the world that He gave several millions of English-begotten sons that whosoever believeth in them should not perish, but have a comfortable life.'

The following month we find scarcely veiled derision in a letter to his cousin Leslie Gunston, exempted from army service, while to his mother -

'…to quote myself cynically "Nothing happens."

A certain gloom was, however, noticeable as I travelled from town to town. There was a hint of war.'

The fourteen lines that constitute the main body of the poem have none of the prerequisites of a sonnet - including the climatic couplet. Disconnected iambic pentameters and variations of tempo make for a jerky rhythm and a building of tension that culminates in those terrifying final two lines.

Based on GENESIS 22, 1-19, the diction closely follows the Authorised Version of the Bible up to line 6, whereupon in lines 7 - 8 a double-take merges the ancient land of Moriah with the contemporary Western Front, allowing Abram's killing tools of fire and iron to synchronise with the trappings of modern warfare:

'Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

And builded parapets and trenches there…..'

At which point a problematical scriptural episode of yesteryear translates into an important allegory for today and tomorrow.

Thus biblical Abram and Isaac, potential sacrificer and sacrificed respectively, are personified into apologist for war on the one hand and victim of that cause on the other. The twist comes when war's advocate turns out to be no Abram.

'When lo! An Angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him, thy son…..'

Unlike his biblical counterpart, when shown God's real commandment he rejects it, proving that what might once have been a matter of principle has degenerated into warmongering for its own sake,

'But the old man would not so, but slew his son

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.'

leaving the Ram of Pride triumphant and intact.

Where in the poem should God be placed? Both the O.T. and Owen's verses show Him subjecting Abram to the sort of test any ordinary father would find repellant, even if God doesn't intend the deed to be carried out.

Here at least, God in the end is saying Stop! whereas six months or so earlier in SOLDIER'S DREAM, Owen was introducing us to a God who said, not Stop! but Don't Stop! by sending the Archangel Michael to repair the weaponry that 'kind Jesus' had fouled in the cause of peace.

If Owen was feeling somewhat more kindly towards God in the spring of 1918 than in autumn 1917 at the time of SOLDIER'S DREAM, what do we put it down to?


Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2005