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 stretched 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.
– Wilfred Owen
This is a poem that’s shadowed me for many years. I first came across it when I was a kid, on Joan Baez’s wonderful album Baptism. (Her readings aren’t the best in the world, but this particular poem she gets exactly right.) It took me quite a few years before I understood it, but the poem was patient, and waited for me to be ready.
The first Gulf War was declared – I was being interviewed for a place at a residential college at UNSW, and one of the questions in the application was What do you think are the biggest challenges facing Western society? I’d answered War. (Given that the application had been sent in a few months before, this made me seem pretty prescient, rather than just cynical.) Walking back down Anzac Parade, past all the people protesting against the war, I kept hearing the poem in my head. The pitiless finality of that last couplet. The blind arrogance of the old man. As soon as I got home again I put the album on and listened to the poem again, and shaped the words on my own lips. Took it in to myself, and kept it there. When the second Gulf War began, this was the poem I turned to. And again after the bombings in London. It’s always had the feel of prophesy to me.
So, when I tried to write a poem to explain how drought felt – how hopeless, and endless, and utterly futile it makes everything seem – to people in Britain (who think of drought as a hosepipe ban), I went back, again, to this poem.
A small piece of trivia, to conclude. Wilfred Owen was killed at the Battle of the Sambre on November 4th 1918, just one week before the war ended. And the telegram informing his family of his death was delivered to his mother just as the town church bells began ringing to announce the armistice.
For more Tuesday Poems, visit http://tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com/.