Before You Were Mine is a memory poem in which the Speaker (presumably Duffy herself), reflects upon the life of her mother before she was born. She describes her mother’s previous life as a carefree young woman before becoming a parent, and the ensuing changes to her life. You can read the whole poem here.
Structure and Form
The poem is set out in four five-line stanzas and is written in the first person, from the perspective of a daughter, addressing her mother. It is written in blank verse. The tone is conversational and the use of enjambment, which is used extensively throughout, adds to this.
Analysis of Before You Were Mine
The opening stanza begins with an informal tone and the vivid picture of the Speaker’s mother and her friends up to mischief, laughing raucously together at ‘the corner’. The use of names, ‘Maggie MGeeney and Jean Duff’ adds a sense of intimacy and realism to the situation. We are immediately aware that the Speaker is conscious of her intrusion in her mother’s life because the poem begins:
I’m ten years away from the corner you laugh on
By immediately framing the poem with the use of a temporal marker, the Speaker hints that the mother’s life will change irrevocably once she is born. The informal word ‘pals’ injects the stanza with light-heartedness, as does the image of the three girls as they
….bend from the waist, holding /each other.
The use of parenthetical commas adds to the sense of youthful exuberance and fun.
The final line of this stanza stands out, and the single word sentence ‘Marilyn’ likens the mother to the world-famous movie star of the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe. The use of a surname here is unnecessary because everybody has heard of this actress, and the image of her dress blowing up over an air vent is one of the most iconic of the 20th century. The name Marilyn is synonymous at once with glamour, but also with trouble, as Marilyn’s death from a suspected drug dose was both tragic and scandalous.
Like the opening stanza, the first line here refers to the mother in the context of her child. The caesura pause after ‘yet’ creates a sense of wistfulness, and the tone is contemplative. The next long sentence with its use of exaggeration: ‘the thousand eyes’ adds to the sense of excitement and possibility. The adjective ‘fizzy’ captures the feeling of butterflies in the stomach, at the possibility of a future date at the movies. By mentioning ‘movies’ we also think back to Marilyn Monroe and dreams of Hollywood stardom. Life seems full of endless opportunities and promise for these teenagers. The monosyllabic line ‘I knew you would dance/like that.’ conveys admiration on the part of the Speaker. This feeling of pride is extended further in the next two lines:
Before you were mine, your Ma stands at the close
with a hiding for the late one. You reckon it’s worth it.
The word ‘hiding’ is a colloquial expression for a ‘beating’, and the off-hand way in which the Speaker’s mother ‘reckon(s) it’s worth it’ makes the reader admire her too- we can almost imagine the nonchalant shrug in response to being chastised. The
Speaker clearly respects her mother’s rebellious spirit. The colloquial language of the word ‘Ma’ further adds to the sense of intimacy in the poem, and shows that the poet is unafraid to go back to the Scottish roots.
This stanza opens in a conversational tone, with the use of the question tag ‘eh?’ at the end. This is another Scottish colloquialism, and here the Speaker is asking the Mother to admit that before she was born, the mother may have been happier, or certainly more carefree. Once again there is a reference to time, and the decade of possibilities before real life intervened. Th poet knows that with her arrival and her ‘loud possessive yell’ that everything changed. She is in no doubt of the limitations that this would have placed upon the mother, living as she did in the 1950s, where a woman’s place was in the home, with her children.
The rest of the stanza is one long complex sentence. The Speaker recalls being a small child, playing with her mother’s ‘high-heeled red shoes’. These were once objects of allure and spoke of a carefree, glamourous existence. Now, they are reduced to ‘relics’, of a life that has long been extinguished. This metaphor is continued as in the image of ‘your ghost (as it) clatters toward me over George Square’ The onomatopoeia of ‘clatters’ mimics the sound of the heels on the cobbles, suggesting the fun her mother would have had, on an evening out in Glasgow’s busy town centre. These biographical details, which plant the poem firmly in Scotland, add realism to the poem. It is unclear to the reader whether the Mother has now passed away, but the term ‘ghost’ definitely refers to a distant memory and a way of life which is lost to her now.
The use of synaesthesia in the line: ‘til I see you, clear as scent, under the tree/with its lights’ adds to the vividness and poignancy of the image. We all know how a perfume or smell can bring back a flood of memories in an instant, and we can feel the speaker’s warmth towards her mother. The gentle vowel sounds, combined with the use of use of parenthetical commas, makes us read these lines slowly, almost drinking in the scene, which seems charged with a type of magic. The use of the question at the end of the stanza indicates a closeness in their relationship. The Speaker does not gloss over the realities of her Mother’s romancing days, and the use of the endearment ‘Sweetheart’ further emphasises her affection.
The opening italics and exclamation marks of Cha Cha Cha! indicates that the arrival of her child did not entirely quash the life and vitality out of her mother. This is further emphasised by the fact that they are dancing on the street ‘on the way home from Mass,’ which could be deemed somewhat improper. This again testifies to the mother’s defiant nature and firm sense of fun. The metaphor of ‘stamping stars from the wrong pavement’ has a multitude of possibilities. The sibilance and energy in ‘stamping stars’ is again utterly indicative of the mother’s character and thirst for life. The image of stars on pavements could refer back to Hollywood Boulevard and the rich and famous who are now immortalised on the stones. From these, the name of Duffy’s mother is notably absent. It is possible that the Speaker feels a sense of guilt and remorse. Had she not been born, could her mother have become famous and reached these starry echelons too? Could that be why this pavement here, in Scotland is ‘wrong’ because this ‘bold girl winking in Portabello’ could have been elsewhere?
The verb choices in the last line of the poem reaffirm the admiration and love the Speaker feels for her mother. The triad ‘where you sparkle and waltz and laugh’ captures her energy and magnetic personality, which age will never erase and diminish. Once again the poet refers to the title ‘before you were mine’ but now, it seems less wistful and more appreciative of a life well lived.
Carol Ann Duffy was born in Glasgow in 1955. She was the UK Poet Laureate between 2009 and 2019, when Simon Armitage took over the role. As a poet, she is not afraid to contentious issues, and was the first openly LGBT Poet Laureate. She often writes poems about childhood, such as In Mrs Tilcher’s Class.