Before You Were Mine: AQA Love and Relationships

Before You Were Mine

Your polka-dot dress blows round your legs.

Carol Ann Duffy

Welcome back to Beyond English’s AQA Love and Relationships poetry bonanza. This week, we’re exploring Before You Were Mine by Carol Ann Duffy. We’ll be focusing on:

  • Context
  • Structure
  • Analysis

Before You Were Mine Context

Before You Were Mine was written by Carol Ann Duffy, who is the first female British Poet Laureate. Duffy was born in Glasgow in 1955 to a Scottish father and an Irish mother. She was raised as a Catholic and attended Catholic school. She was brought up in Staffordshire after moving there with her family. 

Duffy’s love of literature started as a child when her mother invented fairy tales for her and this love was later encouraged by her teachers at school. Duffy attended the University of Liverpool, graduating with a degree in philosophy. It was in Liverpool that she met and fell in love with the poet Adrian Henri, who encouraged her love of poetry writing. Her big break came when she won the National Poetry Competition in 1983. She has since gone on to publish many books for adults and children and is also an acclaimed playwright and editor. 

Duffy’s work often features a sense of ritual, stemming back to her Catholic school days. She also explores feminine stereotypes, challenging historical male superiority in her collection The World’s Wife. Her relationship with her mother also features in much of Duffy’s later work, as does her relationship with her own daughter, Ella, whose arrival changed her life beyond recognition. Before You Were Mine is an exploration of the relationship between mother and child and a tribute to the sacrifices mothers make for their children. 

Before You Were Mine Structure

The poem is neatly organised into four stanzas, each containing five lines of a similar length. This reminds the reader of a similarly neatly organised photograph album which seems to have been the stimulus for the poem. The lack of rhyme in the poem creates a conversational tone suggestive of a close mother/child bond. 

The tightly organised structure is also reminiscent of the steady, predictable passage of time, also neatly organised into weeks, months and years. This sense of time passing is further emphasised by the use of enjambment in the poem: ‘Marilyn/ I’m not here yet.’ The enjambment draws our eyes quickly through the poem creating a sense of haste, tying it in with the idea of time passing by at speed. 

The repetition of the word ‘pavement’ in the first and last stanza gives the poem a circular structure, meaning that the poem starts and begins in the same place. This reminds the reader of the ‘circle of life’ where we all experience our fun, carefree years as teenagers and then have to grow up and take on adult responsibility as parents. 

The poem is mostly told in the present tense, as the speaker remembers past events. This is unusual in the first two stanzas, given these cannot be the speaker’s own memories; ‘I’m not here yet’ implying that the speaker has seemingly travelled back in time to look at her mother’s younger self. We come to see this photograph as a kind of bookmark in time, as the speaker looks back to an early chapter; the young lady in the photograph is almost a completely different person to the speaker’s mother today. 

Before You Were Mine Poem Analysis

The language creates a stark contrast between the mother’s life as a teenager and her life as a parent. The description of her young life is full of references to her being lively, happy and bright. The teenager is described as ‘laughing’ and ‘shrieking.’ Her daughter can visualise her ‘under the tree, with its lights.’ She is ‘winking in Portobello,’ and she sparkles and waltzes her way through life. 

The mother is also described using images of glamour, wearing ‘high-heeled red shoes,’ she dreams of ‘fizzy movie tomorrows’ and is compared to the most glamorous film star of all – ‘Marilyn.’ There is a sense of optimism and a bright future for the poet’s mother, that this bold, confident, rebellious young woman could conquer the world if she wanted to. She enjoys being the centre of attention, ‘in the ballroom with the thousand eyes.’ She is a ‘bold girl’ who stays out late to meet boys, who takes risks and lives life for the moment. 

However, her life as a parent is described very differently. The words ‘ghost’ and ‘relics’ hint at guilt from the poet that her arrival into the world signalled the end of this vibrant, young woman with the glittering future ahead of her. The poet declares ‘The decade ahead of my loud, possessive yell was the best one, eh?’ The rhetorical question here lends the poem a conversational tone, but also hints at a darker truth: the mother’s youthful glee was lost after childbirth. 

The continual use of the personal pronoun ‘I’ creates a self-obsessed, demanding speaker, whose need for attention and time seems to have sucked the life from her mother. However, the reference to a childhood memory towards the end of the poem, ‘Cha cha cha! You’d teach me the steps on the way home from Mass,’ suggests that becoming a parent did not dim the mother’s sparkle altogether and, despite her adult responsibilities, she still managed to maintain her sense of fun and adventure at times. Whether the mother would see the birth of her daughter in the same negative terms as the poet is up for debate.

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