The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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 entire section is 836 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.