Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
Highway 61 Revisited
The Great War served as a watershed in modern history. Beginning in 1914 the war lasted until 1918 and it was the first time chemical weapons were used, the first mass bombardment of civilians from the sky was carried out, and the first genocides of the century occurred. No preceding conflict had mustered so many soldiers and the sociopolitical consequences of the outcome of the war heralded the "literary war" serving as a crucible for "modernity." It produced an astonishing pinnacle of great poetry. Surrounded by the likes of Thomas Hardy, Rupert Brooke, Harold Monro and Siegfried Sassoon, stood the humble Wilfred Owen(1893-1918). Like so many of his fellow soldier-poets Owen felt a profound revulsion in the face of war, but had to resolve this with a sense of duty to fight. He shared with his generation the feelings of resentment of the apathy from the "men in power" to the agony bourn in the trenches, and the apparent ignorance of the "civilians." He also repeated the widespread opinion on the front that young men were being inanely butchered by the older generation of politicians and generals and they were worthy of far more scorn than any German soldier.
His total war experience lasted four months with five weeks on the line. After enlisting in the Artists' Rifles on 21st October 1915 he spent a little over a year training in England. By 1917 he was drafted to France during the worst winter of the entire war. Shell shocked by the horrors he experienced he was sent to the Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh. In August of the following year fellow war poet and friend Siegfried Sassoon had been severely injured. He too was sent back to the war hospital in England where they met and collaborated on several poems.
One of Owen's most effective methods was to end a poem in an unexpected way by creating a feeling of disorientation. The last and most powerful line pulls no punches when it comes to focusing the truth on what is happening to Owen and his brothers in arms. Some versions have notes explaining that when Sassoon came to edit his friend's work he removed the final line.* Even though only four of his poems were published in his lifetime several collected editions were issued in 1920, 1931, 1964, and 1983. Two years after his death Siegfied Sassoon noted in the 1920 volume Poems by Wilfred Owens, ”This Preface was found, in an unfinished condition, among Wilfred Owens’ papers:"
This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak
of them. Nor is it about deeds or lands, nor anything about glory, honour,
dominion or power,
Above all, this book is not concerned with Poetry.
The subject of it is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are not to this generation,
This is in no sense consolatory.
They may be to the next.
All the poet can do to-day is to warn.
That is why the true Poets must be truthful.
If I thought the letter of this book would last,
I might have used proper names; but if the spirit of it survives Prussia, --
my ambition and those names will be content; for they will have
achieved themselves fresher fields than Flanders.
He was just 25 years old when he died yet his poetry endures as some of the most influential and well-known in the English language. A legacy that remains a matchless witness to the appalling shock of the First World War on an entire legion of young soldiers. The official canonization of Owen, which Sasoon began and was picked up again after the Second World War--has done much to distort the complexity of his work. The General Notes from Project Gutenberg say:
Due to the general circumstances surrounding Wilfred Owen, and his death one week before the war ended, it should be noted that these poems are not all in their final form. Owen had only had a few of his poems published during his lifetime, and his papers were in a state of disarray when Siegfried Sassoon, his friend and fellow poet, put together this volume. The 1920 edition was the first edition of Owen's poems, the 1921 reprint (of which this is a transcript) added one more -- and nothing else happened until Edmund Blunden's 1931 edition. Even with that edition, there remained gaps, and several more editions added more and more poems and fragments, in various forms, as it was difficult to tell which of Owen's drafts were his final ones, until Jon Stallworthy 's "Complete Poems and Fragments" (1983) included all that could be found, and tried to put them in chronological order, with the latest revisions Parable of the Old Men and the Young: A retold story from the Bible, but with a different ending. The phrase "Abram bound the youth with belts and straps" refers to the youth who went to war, with all their equipment belted and strapped on. Other versions of this poem have an additional line.
But where the lamb, for this burnt-offering?
The poet uses assonance, consonance and alliteration to integrate the iambic pentameter found within The Parable of the old man and the young. Owen starts by drawing a comparison to the story of Abram and Isaac. He connects the idea that all of the young men who died are somebody's sons. The poet paints his masterpiece with belts and straps and constructs parapets and trenches. Instantly the reader gets a picture of the horrors of the front line. Owen’s Ram is pride personified and Youth experiences the sacrifice taking place in defiance of the celestial message from the angel. Designed to evoke a strong sense of indignation it puts the scenery of the war firmly in place in the mind of the reader. Owen wants the reader to draw the same conclusion he has, the pity of war.
Owen seeks to compare the story of Abram and Isaac to the start of World War I and some say that Abram symbolizes Germany or perhaps Wilhelm II, while many mention it most likely corresponds to the European nations and their governments. But Owen never faults any person or nations in his other poems, so others explain that there is little rationale to suppose that he does so in this one. Instead he criticizes all those in power who took their countries to war and think that killing the Ram is too high a price to pay. The final two lines--the only ones that rhyme, paint a chilling image of an old man systematically slaughtering the Europeon youths. It is this image, set apart from the rest of the poem, that makes it one of the finest war poems ever written.
Has anybody here seen my old friend Abraham?
What makes this poem relevant today is that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are referred to as the "Abrahamic religions." All three share the ancestor Abram or Abraham. Aqedah is the Hebrew word for "binding" and the story of God's testing of Abraham by commanding that he sacrifice his son Isaac. 1 With no reason given in the text, Abraham agrees to do this without argument. He arives at Moriah ties Isaac up and when he is about to kill him an angel tells him to stop. Abraham then offers a ram that is trapped in a bush nearby as a sacrifice in Isaac's place. Although the Aqedah is the climax of the narratives about Abraham as a demonstration to his faith in, obedience to, and fear of God, it is not talked about elsewhere in the Hebrew bible. Isaac surfaces as both the model of martyr and a perfect sacrifice whose act brings merit with a redemptive value for his own descendents.
Rather than a redemptive sacrificial death the New Testament refers to the Aqedah as an example of faith. 2 3 4 Even earlier indications to sacrifice as redemption can be found in Paul’s understanding of the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus and the Septuagint of Genesis may be alluded to in three New Testament scriptures.5 6 7 The divine testing of Abraham and the subsequent near sacrifice of his son appears in the Qur’an too (37.101-113). Early Muslim exegetes vary as to whether the son, unidentified in the Qur’anic passage, is Isaac or Ishmael. Some of the original traditions assert that it was Isaac but by the 9th or 10th century the consensus was that Ishmael, who was progressively linked with Mecca and recognized as the forebear of the northern Arabs, was the voluntary sacrificial offering. Muslims celebrate the event on the day of Eid ul-Adha.
Like Owen observes in his poem this story is meant to be an incentive for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike to live up to their heritage and Abraham is to be looked upon as a foundation of unity and harmony rather that dissent.
Another name writ in water
In October 1918 Wilfred Owen wrote, "I came out in order to help these boys-- directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can. I have done the first." On 4th November 1918 while attempting to get his men across the Sambre Canal Wilfred Owen was killed in action. Historians say that, “The bells were ringing on November 11, 1918, in Shrewsbury to celebrate the Armistice when the doorbell rang at his parent's home, bringing them the telegram telling them their son was dead. “
*There is a scan of Wilfred Owen’s handwritten manuscript for this poem on my homenode.
Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Wilson, Owen," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.
Holy Bible; King James Version.
minstrels-- The Parable of the Old Man and the Young :
The Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993.
The Parable of the old man and the young:
The Project Gutenberg Etext of Poems, by Wilfred Owen