The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

Since posting “The Next War,” I haven’t been able to get Wilfred Owen’s “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” out of my head. It’s actually one of my favorite poems, and very similar in tone, delivery, and message to “The Next War,” which makes sense considering the two poets’ shared experiences with World War I. It’s very sad how nonchalantly the lives of the young are often thrown away by the old, the lives of the poor discarded by the rich, the lives of the underprivileged disregarded by the privileged.

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
by Wilfred Owen

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 stretchèd 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.

 

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The Next War

I’ve recently been watching a lot of movies and reading a lot of books that cover preludes to war, and in Above the Dreamless Dead (First Second, 2014), one of my favorite books of several different categories—graphic novel; poetry collection; war; social commentary—I came across this sorrowful poem by Osbert Sitwell, “The Next War.”

It often seems as though those who make decisions at the top forget the very real people whose lives are affected by those decisions, as Sitwell makes so depressingly clear here.

The Next War
by Osbert Sitwell

The long war had ended.
Its miseries had grown faded.
Deaf men became difficult to talk to,
Heroes became bores.
Those alchemists
Who had converted blood into gold
Had grown elderly.
But they held a meeting,
Saying,
‘We think perhaps we ought
To put up tombs
Or erect altars
To those brave lads
Who were so willingly burnt,
Or blinded,
Or maimed,
Who lost all likeness to a living thing,
Or were blown to bleeding patches of flesh
For our sakes.
It would look well.
Or we might even educate the children.’
But the richest of these wizards
Coughed gently;
And he said:

‘I have always been to the front
-In private enterprise-,
I yield in public spirit
To no man.
I think yours is a very good idea
-A capital idea-
And not too costly . . .
But it seems to me
That the cause for which we fought
Is again endangered.
What more fitting memorial for the fallen
Than that their children
Should fall for the same cause?’

Rushing eagerly into the street,
The kindly old gentlemen cried
To the young:
‘Will you sacrifice
Through your lethargy
What your fathers died to gain ?
The world must be made safe for the young!’
And the children
Went. . . .

Not for a Nation

Last night I was reading an excellent Edna St. Vincent Millay poem, “Not for a Nation,” that I felt I needed to share. It may not be in the public domain, in which case I apologize to the poet and her executors, but it’s something I think has a profoundly prescient attitude towards the current social and political climate and nationalism in general.

Not for a Nation
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Not for a nation:
Not the dividing, the estranging, thing
For;
Nor, in a world so small, the insulation
Of dream from dream—where dreams are links in the chain
Of a common hope; that man may yet regain
His dignity on earth—where before all
Eyes: small eyes of elephant and shark; still
Eyes of lizard grey in the sub-tropic noon,
Blowing his throat out into a scarlet, edged-with-cream incredible balloon
Suddenly, and suddenly dancing, hoisting and lowering his body on his short legs on the hot stone window-sill;
And the eyes of the upturned, grooved and dusty, rounded dull cut-worm
Staring upward at the spade,—
These, all these, and more, from the corner of the eye see man, infirm,
Tottering like a tree about to fall,—
Who yet had such high dreams—who not for this was made (or so said he),—nor did design to die at all.

Not for a nation,
Not the dividing, the estranging thing
For;
Nor, on a world so small, the insulation
Of dream from dream,
In what might be today, had we been better welders, a new chain for pulling down old buildings, uprooting the wrong trees; these
Not for;
Not for my country right or wrong;
Not for the drum or the bugle; not for the song
Which pipes me away from my home against my will along with the other children
To where I would not go
And makes me say what I promised never to say, and do the thing I am through with—
Into the Piper’s Hill;
Not for the flag
Of any land because myself was born there
Will I give up my life.
But I will love that land where man is free,
And that will I defend.
“To the end?” you ask, “To the end?”—Naturally, to the end.

What is it to the world, or to me,
That I beneath an elm, not beneath a tamarisk-tree
First filled my lungs, and clenched my tiny hands already spurred and nailed
Against the world, and wailed
In anger and frustration that all my tricks had failed and I been torn
Out of the cave where I was hiding, to suffer in the world as I have done and I still do—
Never again—oh, no, no more on earth—ever again to find abiding-place.
Birth—awful birth…
Whatever the country, whatever the colour and race.

The colour and the traits of each,
The shaping of his speech,—
These can the elm, given a long time, alter; these,
Too, the tamarisk.
But if he starve, but if he freeze—
Early, in his own tongue, he knows;
And though with arms or bows or a dipped thorn
Blown through a tube, he fights—the brisk
Rattle of shot he is not slow to tell
From the sound of ripe seed bursting from a poddy shell;
And he whom, all his life, life has abused
Yet knows if he be justly or unjustly used.

I know these elms, this beautiful doorway: here
I am at home, if anywhere.
A natural fondness, an affection which need never be said,
Rises from the wooden sidewalks warm as the smell of new-baked bread
From a neighbour’s kitchen. It is dusk. The sun goes down.
Sparsely strung along the street the thrifty lights appear.
It is pleasant. It is good.
I am very well-known here; here I am understood.
I can walk along the street, or turn into a path unlighted, without fear
Of poisonous snakes, or of any face in town.
Tall elms, my roots go down
As deep as yours into this soil, yes, quite as deep.
And I hear the rocking of my cradle. And I must not sleep.

Not for a nation; not for a little town,
Where, when the sun goes down, you may sit without fear
On the front porch, just out of reach of the arc-light, rocking,
With supper ready, wearing a pale new dress, and your baby near
In its crib, and your husband due to be home by the next trolley that you hear bumping into Elm Street—no:
But for a dream that was dreamt an elm-tree’s life ago—
And longer, yes, much longer, and what I mean you know.

For the dream, for the plan, for the freedom of man as it was meant
To be;
Not for the structure set up so lustily, by rule of thumb
And over-night, bound to become
Loose, lop-sided, out of plumb,
But for the dream, for the plan, for the freedom of man as it was meant
To be
By men with more vision, more wisdom, more purpose, more brains
Than we,
(Possibly, possibly)
Men with more courage, men more unselfish, more intent
Than we, upon their dreams, upon their dream of Freedom,—Freedom not alone
For oneself, but for all, wherever the word is known,
In whatever tongue, or the longing in whatever spirit—
Men with more honour. (That remains
To be seen! That we shall see!)

Possibly. Possibly.

And if still these truths be held to be
Self-evident.