The parable of the Old Man and the Young - Synopsis and commentary

Synopsis of The Parable of the Old Man and the Young 

Sacrifice of Isaac by RembrandtOwen compares the Old Testament story of Abraham’s intended sacrifice of his only son, Isaac, with the start of World War I. (See Famous Stories from the Bible > Abraham.)

Investigating The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

  • Read the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22:1-14. Notice where the differences lie between this and the poem
  • Look on the internet for some of the paintings there are of this story (for instance one by Rembrandt and another by Caravaggio)

Commentary on The Parable of the Old Man and the Young 


This poem was written in July 1918 while Owen was at Scarborough, where he had rejoined his regiment before going back to the Western front for the last time. After Owen’s death the poem was published by Siegfried Sassoon in 1920 but without the last line:

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

The story of Abraham and Isaac

Owen retells the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22:1-14. Having promised to Abraham that he would give him many descendants, God had then confusingly commanded Abraham to demonstrate his faith by making a sacrifice of his only son, Isaac. 

Together father and son carry the wood and other requirements for the sacrificial fire to Mount Moriah. When Isaac asks where the lamb for the sacrifice is, Abraham tells his son that God will provide one. Having built an altar, Abraham then places his tied up son on it and is about to kill him. Before he can do so, the angel of God stops him at the last minute, saying ‘Now I know you fear God’. Abraham looks up to see a ram (a male sheep) caught in a bush, which he sacrifices instead of Isaac. 

How Owen changes the narrative

Owen uses the name Abram in the poem. In Genesis 17:5 God tells Abram that his name will now be ‘Abraham’ because he will be ‘the father of many nations’, which is what the name means. Owen probably uses the old name because it scans (though it could also be because of Abram’s unfather-like actions at the conclusion of the poem). When Abraham binds his son it is with the belts and straps of army uniform. At this point the story becomes a parable and the details change to reflect the war and its outcome. From being an Old Testament narrative with a positive outcome, Owen translates the story into a parable, a story with a message. (Teaching in parables was a style of storytelling associated with Christ in the New Testament.)

Investigating commentary of The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

  • In a letter he wrote on 31st March 1918, Owen says of his young French friend Johnny de la Touche: 'He must be a creature of killable age by now.' Go through all the Owen poems you are studying and note all those in which he mentions the young or youth.
    • Make a note of the phrases used about youth and learn some off by heart to use in an exam.
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