Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

For such a short poem, Pastan has packed into “Ethics” a great deal of meaning. Some commentators see the poem as containing a carpe diem, or, “seize the day,” theme, as in a number of famous older poems (such as Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” and A. E. Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now”), but the focus in Pastan’s poem is quite different from the typical carpe diem theme. The poem seems both more accepting and more critical. Restless young people sitting on hard chairs, the speaker contends, cannot appreciate the fullness of life or its complex cycles. They cannot see the significance of the ethics question, nor are they capable of understanding either the full force of old age, with its proximity to death, or the true beauty of great art.

Rather than being depressed by her own approaching death, the speaker seems to be accepting it. In fact, the comparison with the Rembrandt painting carries an affirmation of life. Only as an old woman (“or nearly so”) has the speaker been able to appreciate the power of the painting and the mystical ways in which human life, art, and nature are linked. The poem seems to be chiding youth for its shallowness; better not waste great paintings, or old age, on them, the speaker implies, since they cannot appreciate either. By the end of the poem, readers have been led to see that the academic exercise poses a false choice and that the real opposition is between spring and fall, between the shallowness of youth and the depth of old age, when one can finally experience life’s more powerful truths.