‘Mean Time’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a four stanza poem that comes from the collection of the same name. It was published by Duffy in 1993 and won the Forward prize the same year. The poem does not make use of a rhyme scheme, but there is one moment in which the end lines connect. In the last stanza lines one and four, with “light” and “nights” rhyme.
Duffy also makes use of assonance, or the repetition of vowel sounds, and consonance, the reputation of consonant sounds in ‘Mean Time.’ The first line of the second stanza is a great example. In this part of the poem, there is a distinct repetition of the long “e” sound. It appears in “bleak” and “streets,” adding to the rhythm of the poem. There are a few other moments which are noted within the body of the analysis.
A reader should also consider the title. It speaks to a number of different elements and images which are represented in the text. First though, there is the fact that the word “meantime” has been separated into two words “mean time.” Duffy wanted to allude to an interval of time, like a liminal space, but also to a time that is “mean.” It is cruel and dark in her speaker’s world. When the poem begins a reader becomes aware that there is a specific kind of time she is thinking of, the days after the end of Daylights Saving Time. This is when it gets dark very early in the day, with fewer hours of light to gain hope and love from.
You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Mean Time
The poem begins with the speaker stating that the clocks went back an hour. This is a clear reference to the end of Daylight Savings Time. She goes on to compare the loss of light in her life to the loss of love. While living in a new, darker and much more depressed state, she goes into the wrong part of town. The speaker spends her days wandering the streets in the rain and mourning the past.
Her heart is unable to let go of the worst moments of her last relationship. Although she wishes that her memories were different, she is resigned to the fact that she can’t change them.
Analysis of Mean Time
In the first stanza of ‘Mean Time’ the speaker begins by describing the end of Daylight Savings Time. This is when the clocks “slide back an hour” and there is less light in the evening. For the speaker, who is often considered to be Duffy herself, this relates to a personal experience. She compares the loss of light in her life to the loss of love. Both were stolen from her and disrupted her pattern of living, just as the time change can reorganize one’s evenings.
Duffy’s speaker describes the listless feelings which stole over her after the change of light and love. She,
walked through the wrong part of town,
mourning [their] love.
This line suggests that the speaker did not know how to handle the change. She did things which might’ve been dangerous, such as moving through the “wrong” part of town. This could indicate that it was a particularly poorly policed area.
The action represents self-destructive behaviour and a change in pattern that would, probably, in the past seemed completely strange. In the last line it becomes clear that the ex-lover is the intended listener of ‘Mean Time’ Duffy’s speaker is directing her words to this person.
The second stanza of ‘Mean Time’ is as dark and depressing as the first. “Of course,” she begins, it was raining. This creates an impossible to escape, stereotypical image of a lover walking the streets mourning the loss of love. She was on “bleak streets” and ignoring the “unmendable rain.” This unusual word indicates that the rain itself cannot be fixed, and/or that it is incapable of fixing something she might like it to. It certainly doesn’t do anything to improve her situation.
In the first line of this stanza there is an interesting moment of assonance with the use of long “e” sound. It appears in “bleak” and “streets,” adding to the rhythm of the poem. These moments make the poem all the more pleasurable to read, especially out loud. The same can be said about “felt” and “heart” in the next line, this time though she is making use of consonance, or the repetition of consonant sound. It occurs with the use and reuse of the “t” sound.
She adds that while walking, she was experiencing a range of powerful emotions. Duffy uses personification to poignantly describe how her speaker’s heart is unable to let go of the past. It “gnaws” as an animal or human would on memories. Her mind and heart went into the past and brought back, in their full force, all the “mistakes” the couple made. These are not described, a fact which makes the entire situation all the more relatable to a reader. One can place their own experiences in the mind of this speaker.
In the third stanza the speaker imagines a different future playing out in front of her. Duffy brings back the initial metaphor comparing her speaker’s loss to the end of daylight savings time. She thinks that things would change if the new darkness which spreads so early,
more than one hour from this day
If this occurred, creating an alternate reality of sorts, then the speaker would make sure that she never said all the tings she did, nor heard the things her ex-lover said. But, there is no way to improve or change the past. She is stuck in her situation and with the memories she made.
In the final four lines of ‘Mean Time’ the speaker tries to come to terms with her situation. She knows that for all intents and purposes the couple is beyond the light now. This metaphor goes forward, connecting the lack of light to death. This speaks to how far apart the two are now.
The last line does not lift the tone of the poem at it. It describes the speaker’s wider world as one that is now only made up of,
and the endless nights.
The speaker seems resolved to walk in the dark, dangerous streets for the rest of her life. Without light/love in her life, there is no reason for her to do otherwise.