Poem of the Week

Linda Pastan: Ethics

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?  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.  Sometimes
the woman borrowed my grandmother’s face
leaving her usual kitchen to wander
some drafty, half-imagined museum.
One year, feeling clever, I replied
why not let the woman decide herself?
Linda, the teacher would report, eschews
the burdens of responsibility.
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 the saving of children.

copyright Linda Pastan
reprinted by permission of the author

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19 Responses to Linda Pastan: Ethics

  1. Laura Brodie says:

    This is a poem that I will carry in my head for weeks–so straightforward, and so true. Thanks.

  2. The multiple contrasts of Pastan’s poem are what really strike me. Somehow she manages to contrast the transient against the immortal, the macabre against the beautiful, young innocence against a lifetime of knowledge, and also, on a personal level, her own self as a college student and an later as an old woman. The philosophical question posed to Pastan as a student followed her through life and, because of this poem, may very well follow me, also.
    Mikhaila Moynihan (Fiction Editor of Outrageous Fortune)

  3. Anaya Jones says:

    The question raised in the first few lines of Linda Pastan’s poem “Ethics” is an interesting one. Which would you save? The economics of life and art are far from straight forward, and the value of each are always shifting.

    The question does not have an easy answer, but in the final lines I believe Pastan relieves us from the burden of answering. What is the value of a priceless Rembrandt if there is no one to appreciate it? It is the experience of art, not art’s existence that holds meaning for our lives. So the painting and the old woman do become one for a moment-one in a singular purpose for a minute, they share space and time and converse in a language with no words, only meaning.

    That moment, that conversation between life and art, the sharing that is necessary for true comprehension, is beyond the understanding, let alone the saving, of tired freshmen sitting in an intro to ethics classroom. The poem seams to say, to me at least, that this is a question for old women who know the stakes and the futility of either option.

    Anaya Jones
    Co-Poetry Editor
    Outrageous Fortune

  4. Daniel Murray says:

    As a novice appreciator of art and lover of life, I can not begin to imagine how a piece of art is comparable to a human life, but the poem does just that. In particular, I was struck by the lines: “Sometimes/ the woman borrowed my grandmother’s face
    leaving her usual kitchen to wander/ some drafty, half-imagined museum.”

  5. Cindy Lopez says:

    this poem seems really nice but i truely don’t understand it, i am taking a poem class and i am trying to understand what poems are trying to say and what they actually mean

  6. Amy says:

    To Cindy,

    I know what you mean; poetry is not my choice of art, but I have to read this; most poetry is boring; people say to me open your mind, or think about it, or read it a few times; I prefer setting eyes on a painting or photograph that takes my breath away. Art to me is spontaneous. Oh ya, some things grow on me, poetry is not one of them.

  7. elle says:

    how does time change her answer?

    • Laura says:

      As she gets older and wiser, she realizes that it’s not the actual painting itself, or the old woman herself, but the experiences expressed through them that matter.

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  9. mitch says:

    It gives her a perspective of why she choses the grandmother, it doesnt change her answer.

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  12. Jim says:

    How many of us, I wonder, read the poem and went straight for the comments instead of thinking and re-reading?

    Just me?

    • Mike says:

      Nope, you’re not… ^^

      But I’ve been researching this thing for multiple weeks now for an essay, so at this point I’m just looking for poignant thoughts and quotes.

      That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking by it.

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  14. Senior AP Class Edward R Murrow HS says:

    I don’t understand why she took ethics more than once.

    • Zoe says:

      She didn’t. She’s saying that the teacher asked the same question to different classes of students every fall that the students changed. It says “our teacher asked this question every fall”, it did NOT say “our teacher asked this question to US/MY CLASS/ME every fall”.

  15. Roger Street says:

    Just opened A Pocketful Of Poems Vintage Verse by David Madden and came across Ethics by Linda Pastan. I caught on the student flip and flops about the decision and then is accused of being eschewed. Deliberately avoid the ethical choice by asking the old lady. Then she becomes the old lady. It’s got time, seasons and fall and winter but no real spring or summer. I like the omission. And what Rembrandt was she thinking about saving? Fire? She mentions earth’s most radiant elements burn through the canvas. I think the painting burned.

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