The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“All Bread” is a short poem in free verse, comprising four stanzas of uneven length. The poem’s central premise is the interdependence of humans and the earth and the cyclical rhythms of that relationship. A parallel interdependence between males and females is also implicit in this premise. Bread is the archetypal product of the earth, both the “staff of life” and an element of sacrifice and sacrament. The mundane yet important ritual of making and consuming bread shapes the poem and provides its central metaphor.

The poem’s four stanzas trace the stages in the bread-making process, moving from field to kitchen to consumption, from drudgery to communion. Stanza 1 describes the growing grain which comprises all the elements of earth, vegetable and animal, living and dead. Humans plant and harvest the grain; they assemble the wood and water necessary to mill and cook it; the cook shapes it into loaves. Stanza 2 describes the baking process, evoking the moist heat and the aroma that gives bread-making its appeal. Stanza 3 defines bread’s taste on the individual’s tongue; and stanza 4 invokes perhaps the most meaningful part of the bread-making process: sharing bread.

The poem is written in the first person. Its tone is personal and intimate, as if a kitchen-table conversation were taking place while bread is being shared in a daily family or neighborly ritual. Stanza 4, though, takes on the cadence of a priest intoning the rites of Eucharist: “Together/ we eat this earth” is the benediction that closes the poem.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

As is typical in Margaret Atwood’s poetry and much of her prose, “All Bread” is permeated with the imagery of elemental, primordial life with which Atwood believes humankind is intimately bound. The poem’s language is bare. Its words are largely monosyllabic, sparse and direct, very Anglo-Saxon, sometimes gross—the speech and imagery of peasants and laborers bound, often unwillingly, to the earth: “All bread is made of wood,/ cow dung, packed brown moss,/ the bodies of dead animals.” These materials are obtained by “nine strokes/ of the axe.” The making and consumption of bread is the shaping metaphor for Atwood’s unoriginal vision of the life cycle as binding life and death irrevocably. At the poem’s conclusion, Atwood’s usually pessimistic outlook is leavened by an uncharacteristic optimism. Homely, rustic rituals, performed in field and kitchen, affirm humans’ community with other humans and with the earth. Says critic Kathleen Vogt: “The bread of communion is the bread baked in the kitchen; it is a part of the processes of nature, which include death and life. These processes are a kind of sacrament in ‘All Bread.’”

The intricate interweaving of death and life, destruction and creation, is suggested in the poem’s juxtaposed images of ancient sacrificial rituals (especially of humans to pagan gods) and of the fecund warmth of pregnancy and birth evident in the description of the bread’s rising and baking:

(The entire section is 499 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Biography. Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press, 1998.

Hengen, Shannon. Margaret Atwood’s Power: Mirrors, Reflections, and Images in Select Fiction and Poetry. Toronto, Ontario: Sumach Press, 1993.

Nischik, Reingard, ed. Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2000.

Stein, Karen F. Margaret Atwood Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1999.

Wilson, Sharon, Thomas Friedman, and Shannon Hengen, eds. Approaches to Teaching Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Other Works. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1996.