As the title suggests, this poem is a parable. It’s meant to teach a lesson or impart information. In this case, it’s meant to teach readers something about pride and the choices that led up to World War I and the immense loss of life. Rather than save his son, Abraham decides to kill him, a choice that signals the willingness of European nations to discard what should be their most important concern—their children.
The Parable of the Old Man and the Young Wilfred OwenSo 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 of him. But the old man would not so, but slew his son, And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Explore The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ by Wilfred Owen is a parable that retells the story of Isaac and Abraham with a new twist ending.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by describing the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. The former has been told to sacrifice his son. He builds a fire, gets the knife ready, and is prepared to kill him. An angel comes down and tells him that instead of killing his son he should kill “The Ram of Pride.” Abraham surprisingly refuses in this version of the story and kills his son “And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
Structure and Form
‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ by Wilfred Owen is a sixteen-line poem that is separated into one set of fourteen lines and a final two-line stanza known as a couplet. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme but there are examples of rhyme throughout the poem. For instance, “son” and “one” at the end of the poem. And the half-rhyme of “together” and “Father” in lines three and four. The poet chose to make use of iambic pentameter. This commonly used metrical pattern occurs when the poet uses five sets of two beats in every line. The first of each set is unstressed and the second is stressed. In this case, Owen uses it loosely, with some lines not conforming to the pattern.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “wood” and “went” in line one and “But” and “burnt-offering” in lines five and six.
- Allusion: throughout the poem, the poet makes allusions to the story of Abraham on Mount Moriah and the sacrifice of his son Isaac. This imbues the poem with a religious undertone.
- Metaphor: can be seen through the poet’s compiarosn of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Isaac, to the start of Word War I.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “where the lamb for this burnt-offering? / Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps.”
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,
In the first lines of ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,’ the speaker begins by describing Abraham traveling, with his knife, and fire, to Mount Moriah. He takes his only son, Isaac, with him. He’s been asked by God to sacrifice his only son and he’s prepared to do so. They “both of them together” traveled and Isaac spoke. The fourth line starts Isaac’s comment to his father. Readers have to go to the fifth line to find out what he concludes with.
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,
The speaker, Isaac, asks his father what preparations he’s making. He can see the knife or iron, and fire but there is no “lamb.” It’s at this point that Isaac is unaware that he’s the one who is going to be sacrificed. His father bounds him with “belts and straps.” This line is often related to the way that young men were sacrificed, bound in their uniforms, to an ideal.
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,
When Abraham stretches out his knife to his son, an angel came down from heaven and told him not to hurt his son. This isn’t the sacrifice that needs to be given. Throughout these four lines, readers can find examples of alliteration and caesura. The latter is seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of text. For example, “Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad” and “When lo! an angel called him out of heaven.”
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
In the final lines, the speaker describes how the angel told Abraham that he needs to sacrifice “the Ram of Pride” instead. It should be offered in the lace of Issac. It’s at this point that the poem takes an interesting turn. Initially, it was published without the final couplet but with its addition, the entire piece changes.
The speaker describes how Abraham wouldn’t “slew” the ram that represents pride. Instead, he chose to kill his son and “half the seed of Europe, one by one.” This striking final line likely represents European nations or their governments and their willingness to kill their young men rather than curtail their pride.
The purpose is to emphasize the poet’s opinion of the brutality and purposelessness of World War I. It uses the story of Abraham and Isaac and reframes it.
The tone is descriptive and direct. The speaker does not have an opinion on the events, they are simply telling them as they happened. The poet uses interesting archaic language throughout the poem as well. This makes it feel more important and gives it a historical quality.
The themes at work in this poem include war and pride. The loss of life is tied up in both of these are well as European nations, as depicted through the image of Abraham, are willing to kill whoever they need to in defense of their pride.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ should also consider reading some other Wilfred Owen poems. For example:
- ‘Inspection’ – depicts the loss of life and the cheap way it was regarded throughout World War I.
- ‘Shadwell Stair’ – describes a haunted track of docks in London and the emotional turmoil of the ghost that frequents them.
- ‘The Send-Off’ – shows the aftermath of a send-off party – the aftermath of the joy that follows conscripted men.