Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“All My Pretty Ones” is a poem about loss, about love, and about an adult daughter’s relationship to her parents, in particular to her father. It also reflects the tone and focus of the book for which it is the title piece; in All My Pretty Ones, Sexton attempts to deal with her preoccupation with death, pain, and bereavement. An intensely personal poet, Sexton is generally described as a confessional poet, an artist whose own life provides much if not all of the material for her poetry. In the case of All My Pretty Ones, it is Sexton’s emotions relating to her family and to God that are the foundation for the poems. Poems such as “All My Pretty Ones” are painful for the reader because of their intensely personal revelations and because the subject matter touches on fears, griefs, and disappointments that many readers will share.

The title of the book and the poem is taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in which Macduff expresses shock and grief over the murder of his entire family and makes the point relevant to Sexton’s book that he cannot stop remembering the things “That were most precious to me.” This is precisely what Sexton does in this poem and in the other pieces in the book. Not only does the book’s epigram from Macbeth set the stage, but also her choice of an additional quotation from Franz Kafka establishes the book’s purpose: In the passage, Kafka says that “a book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.” “All My Pretty Ones” is certainly an example of the catalytic function of memory and objects, not only books, for it is the poet’s sifting through the artifacts of her parents’ lives that breaks down her resistance and enables her to express her true feelings for her father. The act of closing her father’s house gives her the opportunity to bring closure to her relationship with him: At the poem’s conclusion, she has moved toward forgiveness and acceptance.