Pastan’s “Ethics” and Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” Poems


In both poems, Ethics written by Linda Pastan and My Papa’s Waltz by Theodore Roethke, the author describe personal experience and perception of life events and ethics of life. In the poems, the narrator calls attention to problems of ethics and morality, and underlines child’s perception of the world and actions of other people. Thesis Both authors unveil importance of ethics and morally in life using specific style and symbols, personal tone and images.

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Comparison of poems

The main similarity between the poems is that they force readers to think it over and analyze difficult life situations and events faced by the characters. In Ethics Linda Pastan describes a situation in museum when a teacher asks students to make a choice and choose between a “Rembrandt painting / or an old woman who hadn’t many / years left anyhow” (Pastan 45). The author depicts that she often remembers the face of her grandmother and, in many years, she remembers this conversation in museum and his importance. Pastan states that personal views and beliefs of a person can change influenced by life events and experience.

Theodore Roethke depicts his memories as a child who suffered from emotional and physical abuse caused by alcoholic parents. Roethke has called attention to the consequences of questioning the speaking subject: relations inside the family and their impact on a child (Fong 80).

Pastan and Roethke depicts a life experience with the speaker being the author. Pastan depicts her school experience and Roethke describes his experience as a small boy: ‘The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy” (Roethke n.d.). Both authors advocate the problematic speaker as it appears in life. They argue that when you begin to wonder about the perspective of the witness, you are being drawn into the important debate about knowing itself. “Quite remarkably, then, Roethke tried, through careful revisions, to balance negative and positive tones in “My Papa’s Waltz”. The result is a poem rich in ambiguity that speaks eloquently to a wide audience” (McKenna 37).

Pastan’s work gives readers a multiple answer to the question of who is writing, and the vulnerability of her narrator to changing contexts introduces a kind of bias into her observations. The difference is the Pastan describes her feelings and interpretations of ethics from two perspectives: as a child and an adolescent while Roethke depicts his memories as child through lens of the adulthood (McKenna34). Roethke analyzes his feelings as a child and unveils their impact on a small boy: “The hand that held my wrist / Was battered on one knuckle ‘At every step you missed / My right ear scraped a buckle” (Roethke n.d.).

This passage shows that a child cannot interpret and understand the meaning of events but he suffers greatly from abuse and negligence. Again and again Pastan gives readers what appears to be the natural, real world of experience and breaks it open, to expose its forgotten figurativeness. “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” (Pastan 45). This interference with our habitual ways of looking at the world makes us question the perceiver, makes the artist visible (Jackson 34).

In order to present the message, both authors use the figure-making style which turns life into literature and has much to do with the aspect of the speaker. The speaker is in question, and, as Pastan suggests, that raises the question of knowledge itself. Pastan does not represent herself as a woman narrator; she does not, as a speaker, solidify into any figure of certain identity, not even female identity. Instead, the female undermines the very principle of identity (McKenna 36).

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In contrast, Roethke’s voice admits the painful sacrifice of self involved in the pursuit of knowing. A sacrificial and alienated identity reminds readers of the poet — a victim. “The waltz is at once a “happy and terrifying activity” that, biographically, reflects ” Roethke’s vacillation toward his father, registering playful but poignant tones in stanzas of iambic trimeter” (79). The perceiving teller of Roethke’s narrations moves again and again from the realistic detail provided by observation and citation (Parini 92).

The main difference between the poems is the way and methods of conveying the message. Pastan questions ethical issues and moral rules, and leave it to readers to decide significance and importance of these rules in life of an adult person. Roethke just describes his experience and unveils deep feelings and sufferings of a child. “Then waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt” (Roethke n.d.). The subject of the poem is the object of the “real world”.

The observations are on the margins of what readers can take without being appalled – his words close to the appalling (Parini 93). The other essential different between the poems is the method of conveying the message and themes. Pastan uses a lot of metaphors and symbols to unveil messages and meaning of the poem. The image of ‘fire’ symbolizes search for truth and desire to behave ethically. Pastan depicts it as: “the burdens of responsibility” (Pastan 45).

This part seems intellectual and aesthetic. The perceiving teller of Roethke’s narrations moves again and again from the realistic detail provided by observation and citation, what readers might associate with the mastery of the natural world. In Pastan’s poem, a real world makes itself known by messages violently counter to desires, against even desire for life itself. Nature limits and refutes the experience of will, enforces abjection.

It takes a poetics, the subversion of language, to define vision. Each narrative shows different patterns of figures (Jackson 35). Although Pastan describes at length the restrictiveness of thesis-proof structure, he only hints at the forms of essay that would accommodate freer world views. The action of the work would constitute a more open form than logical support for a message. Both poems establish a premise with which presumably the audience agrees, and then attempts to transmit the force of that agreement to a conclusion with which, presumably, the audience would not have agreed initially. Thus it rationally insists on a conclusion from which the audience, for non-rational reasons, may demur.


In sum, Pastan and Roethke react to the restrictiveness of logical proof and the degree of authority. Balanced against the desire for the experience of new sight is our fear of it. Turning oneself inside out and seeing the world with new eyes is distinctly uncomfortable, and it can be dangerous. In both poems the idea of ethics and morally dominate forcing readers to think and interpret unique life experiences and events depicted by the authors. It entails the presumption that logic should overrule the emotional and intuitive nature. The proms lay aside the critical poem’s assumption of logical superiority.

Works Cited

  1. Fong, B. Notes & Discussion: Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”; College Literature, 17, 1990. pp. 79-80.
  2. Jackson, R. Acts of Mind: Conversations with Contemporary Poets. University of Alabama Press, 1983.
  3. McKenna, J. J. Roethke’s Revisions and the Tone of “My Papa’s Waltz” American Notes & Queries, 11, 1998, pp. 34-36.
  4. Parini, J. Theodore Roethke, an American Romantic. University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.
  5. Pastan, L. Waiting for My Life. W. W. Norton & Company, 1981.
  6. Roethke, Th. My Papa’s Waltz. n.d. Web.
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"Pastan’s “Ethics” and Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” Poems." StudyCorgi, 26 Aug. 2021,

1. StudyCorgi. "Pastan’s “Ethics” and Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” Poems." August 26, 2021.


StudyCorgi. "Pastan’s “Ethics” and Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” Poems." August 26, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Pastan’s “Ethics” and Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” Poems." August 26, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Pastan’s “Ethics” and Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” Poems'. 26 August.

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