American Literature since the Civil War : Linda Pastan’s Poem “Ethics”

            1. Introduction

Linda Pastan (b. 1932) is a highly acclaimed American poet, who concerns a wide range of important issues in her works of poetry. She pays due attention to description of the roles of women, the analysis of family life, the significance of motherhood and other forms of women’s experiences. In addition, there are many poems in Pastan’s collections of poetry which reflect the issues like death, loss, fears, and grief. Her collections of poetry, including Insomnia, Carnival Evening, Traveling Light, The Last Uncle, Queen of a Rainy Country and others have received global recognition of their value. One of the poetic works written by Pastan is her poem “Ethics”. This poem is taken from Pastan’s collection Waiting for my Life of 1981. In her poem, the poet addresses the ethical and moral challenges faced by people in their lives and highlights the role of the so-called “waiting place” which allows differentiate between the losses of ageing and the rewards of youth. It is clear that young people do not care about death or ageing. They live happily and hope to spend the rest of their lives in the same direction. Unfortunately, they needs to develop ethical appreciation of their lives in order to avoid the feeling of frustration that may come years later, when they become old.  The poem “Ethics” gives a sense of continuity across time, when the poet starts with her recollections of her high school years and ends with her current views on ethics, being an old woman.

Thesis statement: In Pastan’s poem “Ethics”, the key message is to explain the meaning of life from aesthetic perspective, placing emphasis on changes in one’s mind, linking past experiences with present perceptions of the values of life and art, and developing personal philosophy of life.

            2. The analysis of Linda Pastan’s poem “Ethics”

The selected work from Pastan’s collection of poetry is the poem “Ethics” which was written and first published in 1979. In this poem, the significant theme revealed by the poet is related to ethical response to the complicated situation which require applying philosophical views on the values of human life and the values of art. In fact, there are two ethical opposites presented in this poetic work, namely the painting by Rembrandt, which has a considerable ethical value as an art work,  and the old woman whose ethical value is generated by her ageing. The teacher does not want her students to ignore the issues which require ethical decision making. The high school students taught by the teacher of ethics should have a good understanding of the meaning of human life, its values, and how to lead a good life.

To start with, the poet places emphasis on changes in her mind due to her past experiences, which help her to find differences in perception of the meaning of life and its value. Pastan acts as a speaker in this poem. She refers to her memory when she tells about her high school days:

In ethics class so many years ago
our teacher asked this question every fall:
If there were a fire in a museum,
which would you save, a Rembrandt painting
or an old woman who hadn’t many
years left anyhow? (1-6)

The teacher of ethics wants her students to think about a complicated, but unreal situation, which requires ethical decision making. The high school students in class give answers to the set question “half-heartedly” for the reason that the situation is unreal. The use of the situation that describes the hypothetical fire in the museum is done not coincidentally. The teacher wants to hear ethical responses, while the students do not know how to apply ethical decision making to the concrete situation. The poet uses such metaphors as “restless on hard chairs”, “caring little for pictures or old age” which point out to the indifference of students toward ageing and the problems of older people, the lack of aesthetics and morality, and their ignorance toward art.

Restless on hard chairs
caring little for pictures or old age
we’d opt one year for life, the next for art
and always half-heartedly (6-9).

In fact, it becomes clear to the audience that these students are young boys and girls who have no any life experience and who see their lives as something pleasant, trouble-free, and even lucky. For the poet, namely Linda Pastan, the question asked by the teacher has direct relation to the family issues. She recalls her “grandmother” and her “usual kitchen”, the images associated with the familial bonds. It is rather difficult for a young girl to imagine an old woman in the museum which is in fire and to make an ethical decision whether to “save a Rembrandt painting or an old woman who hadn’t many
years left anyhow” (4-6). The poet writes,

the woman borrowed my grandmother’s face
leaving her usual kitchen to wander
some drafty, half-imagined museum (9-12).

Besides, the opinions of the speaker vary. Each year she becomes cleverer and cleverer, as she considers, due to her new experiences, personal development and certain changes in her mind, behaviour and feelings.  As a result, the ethical issue raised by the teacher in her class is perceived differently by the students because of their changing life experiences while growing up. The speaker wants to learn if the old woman has an opportunity to make a decision herself. She is not ready to assess the situation in a proper way. The speaker is poorly prepared to make conclusions regarding the values of human life and the values of art. It is clear that the speaker is rather young to assess the burdens of responsibility. In other words, the speaker has not developed the proper moral values to make a comprehensive ethical decision. Personal ethics and moral values can be obtained due to personal experience and maturity. The poet writes,

One year, feeling clever, I replied
why not let the woman decide herself?
Linda, the teacher would report, eschews
the burdens of responsibility (13-16).

Finally, Pastan begins to link her past experiences with the present perception of the values of life and art. The poet refers to her present experiences as an old woman in order to find the differences in perceptions of  the meaning of life, its values and the values of art. The speaker makes a decision to visit a museum and find the painting by Rembrandt exhibited in this museum in order to experience the feeling of self-actualization. The poet uses the word “real” several times in order to strengthen the emotions of the audience. In addition, repetition of the word “real” leads to association with reality – “a real museum”, “a real Rembrandt” (17-18). The poet writes,

This fall in a real museum I stand
before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
or nearly so, myself (17-19)

Furthermore, the poet uses the images of frames and fire to delivery her key message, which leads to a good understanding of her current perceptions of the values of life and the values of art. Being an old woman, Linda Pastan, who acts as the speaker in this poem, realizes that her ageing is the result of changes in her perceptions of the meaning of life. The poet’s choice of words points out to the fact that ageing is the period of maturity.  It is not a secret that many people seem to look positively at old age as they recognize the values of  maturity, personal experience and wisdom. The colors are described as “darker than autumn”, “darker even than winter” (20-21).  

The colors
within this frame are darker than autumn,
darker even than winter — the browns of earth,
though earth’s most radiant elements burn
through the canvas (19-23).

Actually, due to the speaker’s memorable experience from her school years and her changed attitudes toward life, it is possible to make an ethical decision in complicated situation. The problem of choice can be resolved if the decision making is based on ethical principles which guide human life. At the beginning of each year, the teacher gave a chance to her students to change their attitudes, values,  and beliefs in an ethical way. These facts means that the students had a chance to apply their new skills and experience in order to draw conclusions. For many students, the question asked by the teacher, was perceived differently. They had an ethical feedback loop because each of the students had to assess the values of human life and the values of art. 

In the final part of the poem, the speaker recognizes her personal mistakes and moral failures which allow her developing her personal philosophy of life. She is aware of the connection that exists between the old woman, the painting and season. The poet concludes, 

            I know now that woman
and painting and season are almost one
and all beyond the saving of children (23-25).

The speaker finds similarities in the painting by Rembrandt, the season (fall)  and the old woman she has turned  into. Nothing can be saved by children because they do not have enough wisdom to assess the value of these objects. Children are not properly trained to recognize the value of ageing, the value of art and the value of fall. Actually, the speaker shows that her current philosophy of life is based on her past experiences.  In other words, she has developed the philosophy of her lived experience that gives her an opportunity to assess the values of human life and the values of art. The inclusion of personal experiences in the philosophy of life helps to re-evaluate the meaning of life, as well as give answers to many other philosophical questions. For Pastan, it is very important to demonstrate the final outcome of the situation she faced in her young years when she was a high school student. Without any doubt,  Pastan’s poem “Ethics” highlights the significance of moral dilemmas faced by people during the course of their lives. In this poem, the speaker realizes that her age affects her decision making. She acts as an old woman, who has encountered a number of challenges in her life. Placing the high emphasis on the burden of years, it is possible to resolve complicated ethical issues. The philosophy of life developed by Pastan in her poem “Ethics” is focused on self-improvement, personal achievements, self-actualization, and righteousness.

As a matter of fact, the poem “Ethics” provides an opportunity to assess the comparison between human life and art. The poet is aimed at giving explanation of how to resolve ethically important issues. Pastan’s personal experience is really huge. She comes from a Jewish family and knows much about racial challenges faced by people. The poet’s integrity contributed to her professional success in the field of poetry. Most of her poems are philosophical as they allow the audience to accept the truth. Her great talent is reflection of her life experiences. Thus, in her poem “Ethics”, there is much evidence of the significant role of the poet’s maturity as a professional.  The speaker is presented as a person who has matured to the highest level because now she can give an adequate response to the set question. These facts mean that the poem provides positive interpretation of the role of personal experience in one’s life. The speaker has matured enough to have developed her identity in life. Although the poem is rather hopeless, it teaches a lesson: to learn morality from past personal experiences.

            3. Conclusion

Thus, it is necessary to conclude that in Linda Pastan’s poem “Ethics”, the key message to help people make ethical choices in their lives through personal experiences. This poem provides an opportunity to assess the differences in ethical decision making in the past and present, in young age and old age. There is a close relationship between the values of human life and the values of art. Pastan seems to affirm the primary role of personal experience in understanding and resolving ethical problems. Indeed, this experience allows the speaker to provide ethical evaluation of the situation many years later, when she became an old woman and when she had a chance to visit a real museum and observe a real Rembrandt painting. Hence, the poem “Ethics” by Pastan not only tells about the class of ethics, this poetic work teaches a lesson: personal experience and maturity contribute to ethical decision making. In her poem, Pastan gives a remarkably clear explanation of  the meaning of human life, its values and the values of art from aesthetic perspective, giving weight to the changes in one’s mind, to the linkage of past experiences with present perceptions and, finally, to the development of personal philosophy of life.

Works Cited

Pastan, Linda “Ethics” in Waiting for My Life.

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[Accessed: September 29, 2020]

"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016

[Accessed: September 29, 2020]

"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016

[Accessed: September 29, 2020]

"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016

[Accessed: September 29, 2020]

"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016

[Accessed: September 29, 2020]