"Before You Were Mine": A Poem by Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1955, as the eldest of five children. The family moved to Stafford, in the English Midlands, when she was six. She discovered a love of literature and writing when she was at school and was encouraged by her teachers to publish her work.
In 2009 she was appointed Poet Laureate, the first woman to occupy that role, and relinquished the position in 2019 when her ten-year appointment ended.
She is one of the most popular and approachable poets writing today in Great Britain.
“Before You Were Mine”, published in 1993, poses questions about the role of motherhood, being seen from the perspective of a child who is looking back, as an adult, to the years before she was born and during her childhood. A predecessor Poet Laureate, William Worsdworth, wrote that “the child is father of the man”. Duffy is saying that “the child is mother of the woman”, but in a very different sense to what Wordsworth had in mind.
The poem comprises four five-line stanzas. There are no rhymes, there are many run-on lines (sentences continuing on the next line), and the rhythm is irregular. The tone, as with many poems by Carol Ann Duffy, is conversational as she addresses her mother and imagines her responses.
I’m ten years away from the corner you laugh on
with your pals, Maggie McGeeney and Jean Duff.
The three of you bend from the waist, holding
each other, or your knees, and shriek at the pavement.
Your polka-dot dress blows round your legs. Marilyn.
The poet may be looking at an actual photograph, or imagining that she is doing so. The opening line sets the time and place, making it clear that this scene is of her mother ten years before Duffy was born. That would mean 1945, when the three girls might have been 16 or 17 and with no thoughts of getting married and having children.
The mention of the name “Marilyn” in the last line make it clear that the girls are imitating the scene in the film “The Seven Year Itch” when the character played by Marilyn Monroe lets the warm air from a pavement grill blow her skirt up around her knees.
The suggestion is therefore that the girls have seen the film – maybe that very afternoon – and are having fun at pretending to be three Marilyn Monroes. However, there is a problem with this idea, which is that the film was released in 1955, not 1945!
I’m not here yet. The thought of me doesn’t occur
in the ballroom with the thousand eyes, the fizzy, movie tomorrows
the right walk home could bring. I knew you would dance
like that. Before you were mine, your Ma stands at the close
with a hiding for the late one. You reckon it’s worth it.
This also begins by setting the scene in term of the relationship between mother and daughter, this time taking the whole of the first line to emphasise the point that this is some time before the poet was born, although presumably not as long before as the ten years mentioned earlier.
The fantasy world of the first stanza has continued to a ballroom, a place of glitter and excitement for a teenage girl who might well be pretending to be older than she is. Duffy’s future mother does not appear to be with the friends mentioned by name in the first stanza, so she is exposed to the world of men whose “thousand eyes” are admiring her and one of whom could take her “the right walk home” – presumably to his home rather than hers.
Duffy see her mother as a flirtatious young woman – “I knew you would dance like that” – because she has known her mother for a long time and had many chats with her. There could be some reading between the lines going on here.
But then comes a sudden change of mood. The happy, movie-inspired fantasy world of carefree dancing and flirting is followed immediately by reality in the form not only of “Ma” ready to reprimand the girl for being late home, but the line that is also the title of the poem – “Before you were mine”.
This bring us to the heart of the poem, and the twist on Wordsworth. Having a baby changes everything for a young woman, whose previous life has to be set to one side, possibly for ever. The parent does not possess the child to anything like the extent to which the child controls and possesses the parent.
The decade ahead of my loud possessive yell was the best one, eh?
I remember my hands in those high-heeled red shoes, relics,
and now your ghost clatters towards me over George Square
till I see you, clear as scent, under the tree,
with its lights, and whose small bites on your neck, sweetheart?
One very clever thing that Carol Ann Duffy does in this poem is to gradually insinuate herself into the story at the expense of her mother. In this stanza, the “first person” occupies the whole of the first two lines and returns in the fourth. With her arrival as a newborn, she takes over.
The first line recalls the first line of the opening stanza, with “decade” instead of “ten years”, but now it is looking back with a sense of nostalgia and regret. The word “possessive” is further emphasis of the change of control.
The second line recalls a childhood memory of finding her mother’s “going out” shoes that are now only “relics” of a past life. She imagines the shoes on her mother’s feet as she “clatters” home for another frosty reception after a night out that has involved male company. It is a “ghost” that does so, because the real person has been forced to lead a different life by circumstances, the chief of which was clearly the arrival of a child.
Cha cha cha! You’d teach me the steps on the way home from Mass,
stamping stars from the wrong pavement. Even then
I wanted the bold girl winking in Portobello, somewhere
in Scotland, before I was born. That glamorous love lasts
where you sparkle and waltz and laugh before you were mine.
Time has moved on, and Duffy is possibly a teenager herself, accompanying her mother (who was an Irish Catholic) home from Mass at Church.
The writing here is poignant and intensely sad. The mother’s memories dart all the way back to the scene in the first stanza, but it is all too far away, both in time and distance. She would love to turn back the clock, and does what many parents do, which is to rebuild the past by reliving it through her child. She cannot dance the cha cha cha in a ballroom any longer, but she would love it if her daughter could do so.
“Stamping stars from the wrong pavement” suggests both the pavement of the first stanza and the tributes to film stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. They seem to be equally unrealistic.
The poet regrets what she has done to her mother simply by existing, and would – in one sense – have wished that her mother’s former happiness could have continued.
But, as the repeated “before you were mine” makes clear, each new generation possesses the one before and destroys something that was joyful, innocent and intensely desirable.
This is a very effective poem that makes its point in a dramatic and memorable way. There can be little doubt that it was written based on the poet’s own recollections of her mother or that the regrets expressed in it are genuine.
It might be thought that Carol Ann Duffy was translating her own feelings about the loss of one’s previous life on becoming a parent to her mother’s experience, but there is little evidence to support this view. She did birth to a daughter, but did not have a typical family in later life, being bisexual and becoming pregnant after a short liaison with a fellow writer.
Did she feel possessed by her child and have to give up her previous life as a result? That does not appear to be the case, given her long career as a highly successful writer and with little apparent desire to behave, when young, in ways that her mother did.
This poem works because it describes the tragedy of destroying someone’s life through the accident of being born, but in a light-hearted, almost comic, way.