The Parable of the Old Man and the Young - Language, tone and structure

Language in The Parable of the Old Man and the Young 

Direct allusions to the King James Bible

Throughout the poem Owen echoes the details and language of the King James Bible, which was first published in 1611. As a result the language he uses sounds archaic. (For more on the language of the King James Bible, see Studying Early Modern Language > The Language of the King James Bible.)

  • In line one ‘Abram rose’ and ‘clave the wood’; in Genesis 22:3 ‘he rose up’ and ‘clave the wood’ (‘clave’ being an archaic form of the verb to cleave, or split apart). Owen writes: ‘he took the fire with him’ l.2; in Genesis 22:6 we read ‘he took the fire in his hand’. Owen describes Isaac as ‘the first born’; the Bible describes him as ‘thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest’ Genesis 22:2
  • In line five Isaac says ‘Behold the .. fire and iron’; Owen has changed this from ‘behold the fire and the wood’ Genesis 22:7. He is beginning to adapt the story and the language to that of war. Isaac then asks ‘But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?’ l.6; the Bible version reads; ‘but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ In the poem ‘Abram bound the youth’ l.7, a more universal form of the Bible’s ‘bound Isaac his son’ Genesis 22:9
  • Owen echoes the Bible story in line 9 when Abram ‘stretched forth the knife to slay his son’; in Genesis 22:10 he ‘stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.’ In both versions the angel called ‘out of heaven’ and tells Abraham ‘Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him’, which Owen repeats in l.11-12.

Owen’s use of Biblical language in the poem

Even when the content changes l.7-8, Owen’s style of language continues to echo the King James account, particularly in its repeated use of the conjunction ‘and’. 

  • The ‘belts and straps’ of the army uniform are used to bind the ‘the youth’. In line 8 Abram ‘builded’ not an altar but ‘parapets and trenches’ - the landscape of battle. ‘Builded’ is an archaic term for built often found in the Bible and also famous for its use in the well-known hymn Jerusalem, by William Blake.
  • Owen adapts his account of the angel’s announcement to Abraham by adding in phrases associated with the New Testament account of angels announcing the birth of Jesus to local shepherds Luke 2:8-11: ‘When lo!’ and ‘Behold’ (i.e. look). Luke’s angels ask the shepherds to ‘behold’ the glad tidings of great joy they bring, which is news of the birth of Christ, the saviour. Owen’s angel brings the glad tidings of the Ram of Pride, a saviour which could rescue the youth from death.


The tone of the poem is ‘heroic’ to begin with. It is an epic narrative in the culture of Jews, Muslims and Christians. The tone is sombre and serious, in keeping with the subject matter. Since this was such a well-known story in Owen’s time there is a sense of anticipation as to how he will handle it. By some of his contemporaries, even dealing with the story outside of a religious context (such as a church service) may have been regarded as irreverent. 

So it would be particularly shocking therefore when Abram reneges on his anticipated obedience to God’s command: ‘the old man would not so’. Having been exalted, he is now demeaned. Turning this narrative into one about the tragedy of war has been described as cynical. However, the fact that Owen keeps the tone of voice consistent creates a sense that the sad ending demands as much consideration as that of the original story.

Investigating Language and tone in The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

  • The archaic language of The Parable of the Old Man and the Young works to give the poem dignity but it can also make it more difficult to understand. How do you feel about Owen's use of biblical language in this poem?
    • Does it detract in any ay from the message?
    • Does it support the message in any way?

Structure of The Parable of the Old Man and the Young 

Owen entitles the poem ‘The Parable’. A parable was originally a prose story and at first sight this poem appears to be written in blank verse with no obvious true rhymes apart from the final rhyming couplet. Where Owen may use some pararhymes they are nowhere near as obvious as in the poems where they are used consistently and clearly (such as in Strange Meeting).

The gap before the final reversal of the story helps build anticipation as well as setting the final couplet apart from the preceding narrative.

Investigating structure and versification in The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

  • The final rhyming couplet pulls the story of The Parable of the Old Man and the Young into the twentieth century. How does it contrast with the rest of the poem?
    • How important is that final rhyming couplet?
    • Can you think of a reason why Siegfried Sassoon left the latter part of it out of his edition of Owen’s poetry?
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