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 stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
This is how Wilfred Owen begins his retelling of the familiar story of Abraham and Isaac. Benjamin Britten used several of Owen’s poems for his monumental War Requiem in 1961, interspersing them with the traditional liturgical requiem texts. Britten’s setting of the text begins with a jaunty Abraham, working diligently to build a fire; the music turns darker and metallic when the father binds his son.
When lo! and 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.
The angel that Britten sends is more beautiful than any musical angel I can name. The tenor and baritone soloists sing these lines together, finding perfect unison as they announce with relief the presence of the intended sacrificial animal.
But the old man would not so,
but slew his son, –
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
This is war poetry. The allegory is clear and horrific. Wilfred Owen (photo) was a soldier in World War I, losing his life a scant week before the Armistice. War poets have license to change stories; they know that violence is a merciless story changer. Owen also reminds us that a story that only threatens violence is perhaps no less violent than one that follows through on those threats. The story of this near sacrifice is deeply meaningful, but it is also deeply unsettling. To Owen, all is not well that ends well.
Britten follows this story with the clear voices of a b