The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

January 14, 2007

I was writing today, something I can only do to music. I had spent the previous day immersed in Wagner and needed something that would bring me back to earth without trivialisation. On a whim, I selected Britten’s War Requiem. I first heard this in Wells Cathdral many years ago. It is one of the most moving pieces of music I know; impossible to listen to with dry eyes. Britten brilliantly took the poems of that greatest of war poets, Wilfred Owen and interspersed them into the Latin Mass for the Dead. The following, one of his most famous poems is placed, significantly, in the Offertorium

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 trenched there,
And streched 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.

The most common interpretations of the Ram of Pride, are that it represents the indifference of the nation states of the time to human suffering. Owen was killed a week before Armistice Day (his parents in a tragic twist got news of his death on Armistice Day itself) and most of his poems were published posthumously. With regret I think he could write a similar poem in the modern age.

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