Memorial Day started to honor the fallen of the Civil War, but after World War I was expanded to honor the dead of any war and became a national holiday. My son spent the last several weeks studying World War I poetry, so I asked him if there was one poem he would recommend for this Memorial Day. He said Wilfred Owen’s “Parable of the Old Men and the Young” was the best of the era, here it is and some of his thoughts:
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. 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 see of Europe, one by one.
Taking the Biblical story of Abraham and Issac and twisting the ending gives the poem a powerful ending on the theme of the horror of war. Owen’s use of Abram vs. Abraham (God had ‘renamed’ Abram by the time of the sacrifice) is an early indicator of the tragic ending of the poem. Under the name Abram, he doubted God and his promise and had a son with Hagar, his wife’s slave. His life as Abram signified the time when he was not a righteous man. When God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, it signals his righteousness and obedience to God. Owen’s use of Abram signals that the correct action will be shunned for the sake of pride and instead a great evil is committed.
For those who are like me and would rather hear poetry than read it, few are better than Kenneth Branagh:
Owen Wilfred died a week before the end of World War I. His mother received the telegram notifying her of his death as the church bells were ringing for the Armistice.