Before You Were Mine

Before You Were Mine

This poem is quite difficult to follow for two reasons. First, it moves very freely between the present and different times in the past, which is frequently referred to in the present tense. Second, because the title suggests romantic love but the poem is about mother and daughter. The poem is written as if spoken by Carol Ann Duffy to her mother, whose name is Marilyn. The poem comes from Mean Time (1993). On first reading, you might think that the “I” in the poem is a lover, but various details in the third and fourth stanzas identify the speaker as the poet. Younger readers (which include most GCSE students) may be puzzled by the way in which, once her child is born, the mother no longer goes out dancing with her friends. In 1950s Glasgow this would not have been remotely possible. Even if she could have afforded it (which is doubtful) a woman with children was expected to stay at home and look after them. Going out would be a rare luxury, no longer a regular occurrence. Motherhood was seen as a serious duty, especially among Roman Catholics.

“I'm ten years away” is confusing (does “away” mean before this or yet to come?) but the second stanza's “I'm not here yet” shows us that the scene at the start of the poem comes before the birth of the poet. Duffy imagines a scene she can only know from her mother's or other people's accounts of it. Marilyn, Carol Ann Duffy's mother, stands laughing with her friends on a Glasgow street corner. Thinking of the wind on the street and her mother's name suggests to Duffy the image of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blown up by an air vent (a famous scene in the film The Seven Year Itch). She recalls her mother as young and similarly glamorous, the “polka-dot dress” locating this scene in the past.

Duffy contrasts the young woman's romantic fantasies with the reality of motherhood which will come ten years later: “The thought of me doesn't occur/in...the fizzy, movie tomorrows/ the right walk home could bring...”

In the third stanza Duffy suggests that her birth and her “loud, possessive yell” marked the end of her mother's happiest times. There is some poignancy as she recalls her child's fascination with her mother's “high-heeled red shoes”, putting her hands in them. The shoes are “relics” because they are no longer worn for going out. The “ghost” suggests that her mother is now dead, but may just indicate that the younger Marilyn is only seen in the imagination, as she “clatters...over George Square”. The verb here tells us that she is wearing her high-heeled shoes. The image recalls her mother's courting days. Duffy addresses her as if she is her mother's parent, asking whose are the love bites on her neck, and calling her “sweetheart”. The question and the endearment suggest a parent speaking to a child - a reversal of what we might expect. “I see you, clear as scent” deliberately mixes the senses (the technical name for this is synaesthesia), to show how a familiar smell can trigger a most vivid recollection.

In the last stanza Duffy recalls another touching memory - the mother who no longer dances teaching the dance steps to her child, on their “way home from Mass” - as if having fun after fulfilling her religious duties with her daughter. The dance (the Cha cha cha!) places this in the past: it seems glamorous again now but would have been deeply unfashionable when the poet was in her teens. “Stamping stars” suggests a contrast between the child's or her mother's (“sensible”) walking shoes, with hobnails that strike sparks and the delicate but impractical red high heels. And why is it the “wrong pavement"? Presumably the wrong one for her mother to dance on - she should be “winking in Portobello” or in the centre of Glasgow, where she would go to dance as a young woman. Or perhaps the “right” pavement was not in Scotland at all but some even more glamorous location, Hollywood perhaps, to which the mother aspired.

This is an unusual and very generous poem. Carol Ann Duffy recognizes the sacrifice her mother made in bringing her up, and celebrates her brief period of glamour and hope and possibility. It also touches on the universal theme of the brevity (shortness) of happiness. (This is sometimes expressed by the Latin phrase carpe diem - “seize the day”). The form of the poem is conventional: blank verse (unrhymed pentameters) stanzas, all of five lines. A few lines run on, but most end with a pause at a punctuation mark. Note the frequent switches from past to present both in chronology and in the tenses of verbs - the confusion here seems to be intended, as if for the poet past and present are equally real and vivid. The language is very tender: the poet addresses her mother like a lover or her own child: “Marilyn...sweetheart...before you were mine” (repeated) and “I wanted the bold girl”. What is most striking is what is missing: there is no direct reference to Marilyn as the poet's mother.

It is an account of a real mother, doing her best in tough circumstances and making sacrifices for her daughter. There are trust and generosity here, so that the poem is light years away from the suspicious and unhealthy atmosphere of We Remember Your Childhood Well.

  • What picture does this poem give of the relationship between mother and daughter?
  • Do you find anything interesting in the way the poet presents the parent and her child here? Who is caring for whom?
  • How does this poem explore time - and the relation of the past and present?
  • Parents often give up their own aspirations because of their obligations to their children. Is this true of the situation in Before You Were Mine? Do parents still make such sacrifices, or have we become more selfish in our attitudes and behaviour?
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Before You Were Mine
This poem is quite difficult to follow for two reasons. First, it moves very freely between the
present and different times in the past, which is frequently referred to in the present tense.
Second, because the title suggests romantic love but the poem is about mother and
daughter. The poem is written as if spoken by Carol Ann Duffy to her mother, whose name
is Marilyn. The poem comes from Mean Time (1993). On first reading, you might think that
the "I" in the poem is a lover, but various details in the third and fourth stanzas identify the
speaker as the poet. Younger readers (which include most GCSE students) may be puzzled
by the way in which, once her child is born, the mother no longer goes out dancing with her
friends. In 1950s Glasgow this would not have been remotely possible. Even if she could
have afforded it (which is doubtful) a woman with children was expected to stay at home
and look after them. Going out would be a rare luxury, no longer a regular occurrence.
Motherhood was seen as a serious duty, especially among Roman Catholics.
"I'm ten years away" is confusing (does "away" mean before this or yet to come?) but the
second stanza's "I'm not here yet" shows us that the scene at the start of the poem comes
before the birth of the poet. Duffy imagines a scene she can only know from her mother's or
other people's accounts of it. Marilyn, Carol Ann Duffy's mother, stands laughing with her
friends on a Glasgow street corner. Thinking of the wind on the street and her mother's
name suggests to Duffy the image of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blown up by an air vent
(a famous scene in the film The Seven Year Itch). She recalls her mother as young and
similarly glamorous, the "polkadot dress" locating this scene in the past.
Duffy contrasts the young woman's romantic fantasies with the reality of motherhood which
will come ten years later: "The thought of me doesn't occur/in...the fizzy, movie tomorrows/
the right walk home could bring..."
In the third stanza Duffy suggests that her birth and her "loud, possessive yell" marked the
end of her mother's happiest times. There is some poignancy as she recalls her child's
fascination with her mother's "highheeled red shoes", putting her hands in them. The shoes
are "relics" because they are no longer worn for going out. The "ghost" suggests that her
mother is now dead, but may just indicate that the younger Marilyn is only seen in the
imagination, as she "clatters...over George Square". The verb here tells us that she is
wearing her highheeled shoes. The image recalls her mother's courting days. Duffy
addresses her as if she is her mother's parent, asking whose are the love bites on her neck,
and calling her "sweetheart". The question and the endearment suggest a parent speaking to
a child a reversal of what we might expect. "I see you, clear as scent" deliberately mixes
the senses (the technical name for this is synaesthesia), to show how a familiar smell can
trigger a most vivid recollection.
In the last stanza Duffy recalls another touching memory the mother who no longer dances
teaching the dance steps to her child, on their "way home from Mass" as if having fun after
fulfilling her religious duties with her daughter. The dance (the Cha cha cha!) places this in
the past: it seems glamorous again now but would have been deeply unfashionable when the
poet was in her teens. "Stamping stars" suggests a contrast between the child's or her
mother's ("sensible") walking shoes, with hobnails that strike sparks and the delicate but
impractical red high heels. And why is it the "wrong pavement"? Presumably the wrong one

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Portobello" or in the centre of
Glasgow, where she would go to dance as a young woman. Or perhaps the "right"
pavement was not in Scotland at all but some even more glamorous location, Hollywood
perhaps, to which the mother aspired.
This is an unusual and very generous poem. Carol Ann Duffy recognizes the sacrifice her
mother made in bringing her up, and celebrates her brief period of glamour and hope and
possibility.…read more

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