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Title:        Parable of the Old Man and the Young

I.             Context & Subject Matter

The use of Biblical parallels or allusions can be an effective device to explore modern issues.  Owen’s experience as a Sunday school teacher could have inspired this.  We do find other examples of biblical references and language in his poetry. 

Again the tremendous waste of young life is at the heart of this poem.  Older men see the young as a threat and expend them at random.  The attitude of the High Command illustrates this.  Commenting on the loss of thousands of men at the battle of the Somme; estimated at up to 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 dead in one day, General Haig is supposed to have shrugged and said we’ll simply ask for more replacements. Cabinet notes indicate a major conflict between Ministers engaged in condemning incompetent officer-class Brits for their insatiable demands for more shock troops or cannon fodder. The Western Front cost more than four Million lives over a four year period.

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 of him.

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

And half the seed of Europe, one by one. 

III. Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns

Older people have a duty of care toward the younger but the wanton waste of young lives is a common occurrence.  As Bob Dylan records in his song, Highway 61:

God said to Abraham, “kill me a son”.

Abraham: “Where do you want the killing done”?

God: “Out on Highway 61”

Modern day slaughter of the young occurs because of badly designed cars, inadequate driver training and poorly designed roads. Ineffective education regarding lethal recreational drug and alcohol abuse and other dangers are contributing factors.

Until the mid 19th C. Kings and Generals would lead their troops into battle, but today that does not occur and only losers in society end up joining the military.  In 1914, the 1st world war was called “The Great War” and welcomed as a major sporting contest. It was only the devastation of Gallipoli and later The Somme where 20,000 men were lost in a day that a more sobering assessment took some of the glory of war away.  

Retrospective analysis of this “War to end all Wars”  reveals not only the utter incompetence of the High Command, but their sheer callousness in regard to the wanton wasteful slaughter of thousands upon thousands of young men blindly sent “over the top” in futile assaults against impregnable defences. The tunnel – vision idiocy of those in charge of the “War to end all Wars” , those who heartlessly exploited our boys patriotism.   Safely ensconced in their bunkers fifty miles behind enemy lines, the High Command had little idea of the conditions at the front and what they were ordering their troops to do.   After the war ended when a general, who had been commanding at least fifty miles behind the front, on visiting the trenches purportedly commented “Did we send men to fight in this?”

None of the members of government in America have sons or daughters fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. Perhaps the conspiracy consists of the old men killing off the young so that there will be less competition for women.  Most wars are fought on the basis of false pride; as the angel said they should sacrifice their pride rather than the blood of the young.

 IV. TECHNIQUE

Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic.     Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) figures of speech:  similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc

The stark contrast between the compliance of Abraham and the “Old Men” of his time is an attempt to shame the generals and politicians for the unnecessary sacrifice of their young men to preserve their honour.

Images include:  altars of primitive sacrifice and Rams of Pride

 V. LANGUAGE:

Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience,   Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative,   emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron.   Gender biases.  Register:  formal, stiff, dignified  or Colloquial;  relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly  or Slang;  colourful, intimate,  Rhetorical devices;  Questions,  exclamations,  cumulation,  crescendo,  inversion,  bathos,  repetition,  3 cornered phrases. 

The stark contrast of the biblical language of the King James Version of the Bible with the wartime jargon of World War I, gives this poem its potency:

 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.  Genesis 22, 3.

Read the whole passage here. 

Biblical Terminology

Wartime Jargon

Clave,    sojourned,  first born, spake,

Lamb, burnt-offering,  slay,  lo!  Angel,

Heaven,  lay not thy hand,  Behold,

Thicket, Ram of Pride

Slew,   seed (for sperm)

Fire and iron,

Belts and straps,

Parapets and trenches

 

The juxtaposition of the biblical language with military terminology  demonstrates that though the poem appears to be set back in the times of the Old Testament (Before the birth of Christ)  it applies to the time of the First World War as well.

 The isolation of the last two lines shows a departure from the biblical tone with the two negative “Buts” indicating the distinction and the deliberate reaction of: 

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

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

The “one by one” adds a pre-meditated deliberative motive behind the action.

VI. Evaluation:

While this poem uses a neat parallel to demonstrate the butchery and brutality of modern day warfare, it is not necessarily a valid argument as primitive wars were proportionally just as devastating, costly and brutal.


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