Abram rises, chops the wood, taking fire and a knife with him. Father and son journey together, and Isaac, the first-born, asks, as he has observed the preparations, where the lamb is for the burnt offering. Abram binds his son and builds up the earthen walls and trenches. He holds the knife out to slay his son. Suddenly an angel from heaven calls out and tells him not to touch his son. There is a ram caught by its horns in a thicket and Abram should use this "Ram of Pride" instead. The old man decides not to use the ram and slays his son instead; he then slays half of Europe's young men, "one by one".
"Parable of the Old Man and the Young", one of the poems that appears in Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, takes the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac and gives it new vitality and resonance in the context of the First World War. It was published posthumously by Siegfried Sassoon in 1920 in Owen's collected poems. Owen wrote this poem sometime in early 1918 and sent it to the poet Osbert Sitwell. Sitwell had written a poem entitled "The Modern Abraham" where Abraham is a wealthy arms manufacturer who prides himself on having sent off one of his sons to fight and die, and says he would gladly send his ten other sons to fight as well. Owen may have been influenced by this work.
The poem is written in iambic pentameter but uses blank verse rather than traditional rhyme. This metre gives the poem its solemn, preachy quality; it is intended to be a parable and surely succeeds as one. Owen's customary pararhyme pops up here as well ("together, father"). The poem does a good job of hewing to a narrative flow even though it possesses an irregular sound pattern. The language is closest to the text from the King James Version of the Bible.
In the biblical version (Genesis 1-19), Abram takes his son Isaac up into the mountains and prepares his sacrifice. It is to be Isaac, and Abram is anguished. He is just about to take his son's life in order to fulfill God's command when an angel appears and tells him to stay his hand. A ram caught in a nearby thicket is sacrificed instead. In Owen's poem, there are a few modern touches that ground it in the context of WWI. Abram builds "parapets and trenches" and holds Isaac down with "straps and belts". Where the poem most markedly deviates from the biblical story is when the angel instructs Abram to sacrifice the "Ram of Pride" instead of Isaac, but the old man slays his son anyway and then, in one of the most memorable and disconcerting lines in Owen's oeuvre, also slays "half the seed of Europe, one by one".
It is commonly assumed that Abram stands for the rulers of Europe and Isaac is a typical soldier, representative of all the young men slaughtered so such rulers could play out their games of conquest. Rather than slay their own pride, the military machine sacrificed the next generation. Owen's poem may be traditional in its structure, but the seething commentary is certainly not ambiguous. Scholar Andrew Gates writes, "Owen’s poem is not one of idealized glory and divine mystery, but an account of true and bitter reality of his day."
The poem also points to perhaps a different conception of God than Owen had previously expressed in other poems. The angel, the mouthpiece of God, orders Abram to stop. It is clear that Abram defies God and continues his warmongering. God here is much different than the God of "Soldier's Dream", in which the Archangel Michael repairs weapons destroyed by Jesus in the quest for peace. Owen's perversion of a biblical story also serves to contradict the glory and justification of the nobility of war, cloaked in what Owen called "false creed". (See Analysis of "Le Christianisme")