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Before You Were Mine: Love and Relationships Analysis

Before You Were Mine was written by Carol Ann Duffy and published in 1993. Duffy was born in Glasgow in 1955. She was the UK Poet Laureate from 2009 to 2019.

Poem Summary

The narrator imagines her mother ten years before she (the narrator) was born. She thinks of her laughing with her friends and wearing a glamorous dress. Then, she imagines her mother going out dancing and the trouble her mother would get into for staying out late.

She wonders whether this was the happiest period of her mother’s life. Later, she recalls how her mother taught her dance moves as a child. She reflects that, even at this point, she was fascinated by the idea of her mother in her younger days, before the narrator was born.

The poem’s key message:

After being born, a child only knows their mother as a parent and often wonders about the life she had before their arrival.

Language

  • Duffy uses words related to energy and excitement to describe the mother’s younger days. The word “fizzy” shows her excitement about dancing and future romantic dates. She and her friends would “shriek” with laughter. In the final line, the narrator thinks of how her mother would “sparkle and waltz and laugh” in these happy days.
  • The use of possessive language illustrates the shift in the mother’s life after becoming a parent. The title “Before You Were Mine” demonstrates this. The narrator also talks of her “loud, possessive yell” as a baby. She then acknowledges that these early days of motherhood were not as fun as when her mother was young.
  • Figurative language is used as the narrator imagines what her mother was like in her younger days. As a child, she finds her mother’s dancing shoes and calls these “relics”. Relics are objects that have survived from an earlier time and so offer historical interest. This shows the narrator’s fascination towards this time in her mother’s life. She also thinks of her mother wearing these shoes as a “ghost”. This shows how the past version of her mother no longer exists, but she comes back to life as a ghost in the daughter’s imagination.

Structure

  • The first two stanzas focus on the narrator’s imagination of her mother’s life before she was born.
  • In the third and fourth stanzas, the narrator recalls her childhood, piecing together clues about her mother’s younger days, such as her dancing shoes.
  • The recurring imagery of dancing on the pavement is introduced in the first stanza, where the mother is depicted dancing with her friends. In the final stanza, she dances on the pavement with her daughter, showing how her life has changed, and her primary role is now as a parent.

Form

  • The poem follows a free verse structure, lacking a consistent rhythm or rhyme scheme. Yet, there’s a sense of order as each stanza consists of five lines. This could reflect the neatly ordered imagination of the narrator about this time, showing that she has thought of it many times.
  • It is written in the first person from the daughter’s point of view, so we only see her imaginings of her mother before she was born. Much of the poem uses the past tense as the narrator reflects on moments from her mother’s earlier life. However, some lines are in the present tense (e.g. “I’m not here yet”). This gives the impression of the narrator speaking directly to her mother.

Themes

ThemeAnalysis
MemoryThe first two stanzas show the narrator’s imagined memories of her mother before she was born. These memories may be pieced together from photographs and what her mother told her. These memories show her mother to be very happy and excited about life. She is “fizzy” with excitement, and there are future romantic dates to look forward to with “movie tomorrows”. She is glamorous, as shown with “Marilyn” (a reference to Marilyn Monroe, an actress and singer from the 1950s and 60s).

In the last two stanzas, there are actual memories of finding her mother’s shoes and being taught to dance by her mother. However, even in these times, she imagined a younger, happier version of her mother who would “sparkle and waltz and laugh”.
Getting OlderThe narrator imagines her mother’s younger days with a sense of regret. She speculates that this decade “was the best one” and suggests that life became less happy for her mother as she got older and became a parent.

She remembers her mother teaching her to dance but says this was on “the wrong pavement”. This could mean her mother had much more fun dancing on the pavement with her friends. It could even suggest that her mother’s life went wrong when she became a mother.
AdmirationFilled with awe and wonder, the narrator envisions her mother in her younger, glamorous youth. She describes her as a “bold girl winking in Portobello”. This shows that she thought of her mother as strong-willed and full of fun.

This sense of bravery is shown when her mother decides it is “worth it” to take a “hiding” (a physical beating) in order to stay out late. The narrator also asks in mocking disapproval, “whose small bites on your neck, sweetheart?” This hints at the narrator’s imagination of her mother’s exciting romances during her younger days.

Key Quotes to Learn

QuoteWhy is it important?
“shriek at the pavement”This shows her mother’s fun with her friends; they would “shriek” with laughter and joy. It also introduces the image of the pavement.
“those high-heeled red shoes, relics”As a child, the narrator would look at the shoes and imagine the dancing her mother would do in them. They are “relics” in the sense that they are old and have historical interest for the narrator.
“stamping stars from the wrong pavement”When the mother dances at the end, she can still have excitement and fun. However, it is on the “wrong pavement”, suggesting it is not as fun as when she would be with her friends.

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