This article is a summary of the poem Ethics by Linda Pastan.
This is a poem I like a lot I think it gets off to an intriguing start but by the end, it becomes a pretty dark somber poem.
As we look at this poem let’s be sure we understand what we mean by ethics. Ethics is a moral code that governs the behavior and thought processes of an individual or group. Now this poem begins with a hypothetical question posed in a specific context.
Summary of Ethics by Linda Pastan:
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?
Notice how the question is phrased. It’s not phrased objectively. Those words who hadn’t many years left anyhow tries to influence the audience away from the old woman and toward the Rembrandt painting that may be the teacher’s attempt to start a lively classroom argument. But you know how it is when you’re sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher pose an abstract theoretical question. It can be pretty hard to get interested.
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.
Once in a while the speaker can almost bring this question down from the theoretical skies into something she can care about.
the woman borrowed my grandmother’s face
leaving her usual kitchen to wander
some drafty, half imagined museum.
And then this speaker comes up with something that she thinks is clever.
Why not let the woman decide for herself?
But the teacher isn’t impressed.
Linda, the teacher would report, eschews
the burdens of responsibility.
The word eschews means avoids. She uses that word because it’s a teachery kind of word.
The kind of word and ethics teacher might use. Note also that I’ve told you before to be aware that the speaker of a poem is not to be confused with the author of the poem.
And yet in this poem the author chooses to use her first name. Inviting us to see an autobiographical element in the poem.
The next line is an important one because that is the line when the sauce begins to thicken. When the poem starts to take on more complexity and depth.
This fall in a real museum I stand
before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
or nearly so, myself. 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. I know now that woman
and painting and season are almost one
and all beyond saving by children.
So the setting has changed. We’re not in a classroom any more years have passed and the speaker is in a real museum almost an old lady her self. We don’t know which Rembrandt painting the speaker is looking at but a lot of Rembrandt paintings have a dark tone to them.
Here’s a typical example.
This one is called landscape with a castle and you can see how dark the overall atmosphere of the painting is.
If we’ve ever seen a Rembrandt we understand better the lines the colors within this frame are darker than autumn. Darker even than winter that fits this poem because the tone of the poem is dark also.
The theme is a somber one. so while the speaker is in this museum looking at the painting. She has an epiphany a revelation that allows her to answer this question once and for all. I know now that woman and painting and season are almost one and all beyond saving by children.
Well, what does that mean?
she understands now that the words save is misleading. One can’t save an old lady. You might carry her out of a burning museum but ultimately she will die.
You might carry a Rembrandt out of a burning museum but given enough time it will deteriorate and cease to be. People and objects don’t last forever sooner or later they go back to nature and that is why woman and painting and season or nature are almost one.
I place this poem in a little cluster of poems title subject and so what’s the subject of the poem and what’s the theme.
We might say in a general way that the subject is ethics the title of the poem.
The opening question is an ethical question what do we value most life or art that’s a question about moral priorities. But remember a theme is an idea an attitude or an impression about the subject.
Well, what is the idea about ethics in this poem?
It’s simply that all things are temporary. Nothing lasts forever.
The idea of saving anything in the larger permanent sense is not possible. That’s a pretty dark somber idea and it’s also a very large idea. But framing this large idea in a little poem about an old woman a museum and a Rembrandt painting helps us get our heads around. It helps us see the truth of it and remember all poetry in one way or another is about seeing.