Ethics

by Linda Olenic

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The Poem

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“Ethics” raises a number of significant philosophical issues, and it does so in language that is clear and direct and in a voice that immediately elicits an emotional and intellectual response from readers. The poem’s title, like its subject, is rather abstract, but Linda Pastan immediately and consistently grounds the poem in her unique narrative voice.

As a student in a philosophy course years ago, the speaker says in the poem’s opening lines, she was given one of those difficult questions that ethics teachers like to pose—what are often called “values clarification” questions—and asked to choose between saving a great work of art (a Rembrandt painting) or an old woman from a fire in a museum. There is never a “correct” answer to such questions; rather, the process of thinking the question through often exposes the student’s own value system in clearer outline. The first part of the poem makes the students’ values clear and reveals that the question is hardly relevant to them: “Restless,” “caring little for pictures or old age,” the students can only answer “half-heartedly.”

This classroom exercise in the first part of the poem is interrupted, at least in the speaker’s own mind, when she recalls that sometimes the woman in the ethics question “borrowed my grandmother’s face.” The abstract philosophical question, in other words, has been personalized, made human by the speaker’s own real-life experiences, by the memory of her grandmother. This recollection is a hint of what is to come in the poem’s closing lines.

In the last section of what is essentially the longer first half of the poem, the speaker—still imagining herself as the student in that philosophy class—tells readers about the year when she answered her teacher’s question with one of her own: “why not let the woman decide herself?” She gave, in short, a clever response, and one that offered autonomy to the imaginary character in this ethics exercise. The point is important, because Pastan the poet is, in a sense, doing the same thing in her own poem—she is personalizing an abstract ethics issue, giving it human dimensions. The teacher, using the academic jargon of the profession, notes that Linda “eschews” (avoids or shuns) “the burdens of responsibility.” The teacher, in short, like all good teachers, tries to bring the discussion back to the subject and to the classroom exercise.

Although there is no stanza break at this point, the poem clearly shifts focus after line 16. The first two-thirds of the poem recall a school experience; in the last third, the poem shifts to the immediate present (“This fall”). Past tense becomes present tense, and the ethical conundrum of the first part of the poem is tentatively answered. The speaker is now standing in a “real museum” looking at an actual painting; the abstract example of the academic exercise has become “a real Rembrandt,” and the speaker herself an “old woman,/ or nearly so, myself.”

With this new perspective, which only time could give her, the speaker now is able to look closely at both choices in the ethical problem. The colors of the painting—Pastan is describing what Rembrandt does in his most famous works—are “darker than autumn,/ darker even than winter—the browns of earth.” She recognizes how Rembrandt has captured something natural, even mystical, in his paintings, for she observes further the ways in which “earth’s most radiant elements burn/ through the canvas.”

Her conclusion from this intimate knowledge of both subjects? She still cannot answer the ethical challenge. Rather, she goes beyond the question—as she first did in lines 13-14 with her clever answer—to the realization...

(This entire section contains 836 words.)

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“that woman/ and painting and season are almost one/ and all beyond saving by children.” She overthrows the very terms of the ethical choice of the first part of the poem, in other words. The ethics problem implied that human life can be reduced to categories; now, as an older woman, she knows truths which transcend any such limitations.

What started as an ethics exercise, then, has become something much more important: the recognition of the power of art, an understanding of the seasons of human life, and the realization of how she herself, the speaker, shares so much with both the last seasonal stages of autumn and winter and the Rembrandt painting, where one can also sense something beyond those seasons (“darker than autumn,/ darker even than winter”). The speaker thus comes to see how Rembrandt has captured nature and yet has also rendered something mystically beyond, that “burns through the canvas.”

Finally, the speaker knows, in a poignant recognition, that “woman/ and painting and season”—are “beyond saving by children.” The restless students in the ethics class at the start of the poem can know nothing about old age, or about art, or even about natural life cycles—and they certainly cannot save one or the other from the death or destruction that awaits them all.

Forms and Devices

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For a poem that deals with some rather abstract philosophical issues, “Ethics” is remarkably accessible. Pastan accomplishes this feat by using language that is clear and direct and metaphors that tie the experiences of the poem together for the reader. The language in the poem is almost monosyllabic: fire, chairs, life. The most difficult vocabulary (eschews, responsibility) appears mainly in the philosophy teacher’s language. Likewise, the experiences of the poem are rendered as physical images: restless students on hard chairs, the speaker’s grandmother in her kitchen and then wandering in a museum, the speaker herself as an older woman standing in “a real museum.” The abstract nature of the poem’s subject, in short, is softened somewhat in the concrete ways that Pastan renders it. Only the last few lines, when the speaker describes an essentially mystical experience, cause any difficulty in understanding.

The language is also made approachable through alliteration and assonance—through poetic devices, in other words, that lead readers to move from word to word more easily: “real Rembrandt” (line 18), for example, or “autumn,” “brown,” “burn,” (lines 20-22). The devices Pastan employs help to bring the complex ideas in the poem down to earth.

The central metaphor of the poem is the poem’s very subject and idea. The old woman and the Rembrandt painting, which are posed as ethical opposites in the first lines of the poem, have become, by the end of the poem, the same thing, and they are joined by the seasons as well. One element comes to stand—as in any metaphorical comparison—for the other. Old age, the seasons, and the dark colors and “radiant elements” in Rembrandt’s paintings have so much in common: fullness, value, and beauty.

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