The following is a short essay I wrote as part of my A-Level English Literature course.
The two poems come from Duffy's 'Mean Time' anthology, a collection of poems that deal particularly with nostalgia and relationships at different points in the poet's life.
How Carol Ann Duffy explores relationships in 'Valentine' and 'Before You Were Mine'
The way Carol Ann Duffy explores relationships in her poems is a rich subject for comparison, as each poem puts an interesting spin on the way she, as the narrative voice, reacts to the people around her. On the one hand we can look at the acerbic treatment of the relationship she has with her lover in 'Valentine', as she chooses the unusual subject of an onion as a symbol of what they have between them. This makes an extreme contrast to 'Before You Were Mine', in which we can observe a romantic sentiment regarding her mother that is almost a direct opposite of the sour, but down to earth tone of the former poem.
In 'Before You Were Mine', Duffy ponders in a nostalgic tone what her mother’s life must have been like before she was born, without the restriction and constraint of her child’s 'loud possesive yell'. The mood conveyed is a very dreamy one, as Duffy, seemingly writing from the point of view of herself as a child or young woman, looks at her mother's old high-heeled shoes and tries to visualise her mother's life when she was young and (in a way) glamorous.
It is a happy image that is conveyed. Before her daughter's birth, the mother lead an almost care-free life, the extent of her cares apparently being her own Ma’s 'hiding for the late one'. It is also indeed glamorous, although the Hollywood imagery probably represents more the fun and excited state of mind than the reality. The fact that Duffy's mother shares her first name with Marilyn Monroe is not lost on the poem, and the name 'Marilyn' is set aside in its own sentence, bringing the comparison clearly to mind. The language used plays on this theme, and talks of 'fizzy, movie tomorrows'. This is a very romantic image, and we think of the hope and the buzz Duffy's mother would have actually felt in terms of unreal movie clichés which she might have had in her mind.
The tone, however, is not at all bitter, or even upset or regretful. The poet is merely looking back at this reality she did not experience with wonder, thinking how her mother was young once and lived a life perhaps not unlike her own. In a way the glamourous images mock Marilyn’s youthful imaginings when contrasted with todays banal motherhood (walking back from mass) yet Carol Ann Duffy seems to respect and admire her for giving up her life to be her mother.
The dreamy nostalgic tone of the language is backed up by the form the poem takes. It is spoken in the first person and directed towards the mother. It is given the air of a flashback through the continual change in time and place. It goes between memories of Marilyn's life as a young woman and Duffy's memories of being a young woman and wondering at her mother's former life, although it is spoken from the point of view of Duffy as an adult. There is no rhyme, and although there is no strong rhythm, the speech flows in a smooth way, coming across almost like a stream of consciousness.
'Valentine' presents an extremely different view of a relationship, this relationship being the one Duffy has with her lover. Differing from 'Before's nostalgic dreaminess, 'Valentine' is blunt and very much set in the present. It is Duffy speaking to her partner and presenting them with their Valentine's gift – and rather than something like a clichéd red rose, it is an onion. From this starting point, we see that the theme of 'Valentine' is different from 'Before', and in the unusual symbolism of an onion we see a departure from the clichéd images of the other poem (e.g. Hollywood).
The symbolism that it represents is largely spelled out as the poem progresses, although there is room for interpretation and any furthering of the metaphor that the reader may choose. Duffy compares the peeling of the onion to the 'careful undressing of love' – and we can take this in both the literal sense of undressing and in terms of them discovering more about each other as the relationship progresses.
The narrator's intention in giving the onion is to be honest about their relationship, as in where she says 'I am trying to be truthful'. The bluntness in the way she talks is reflected by the layout of the poem. There are short irregular verses, and sentences of only one or two words. There is no regular rhythm, and no rhyme, again breaking away from the romantic tone that may have been prevalent had she given him such a gift as a 'satin heart' after all.
The image of the onion has mixed connotations, just as their relationship would not be expected to be all good or bad. It does, however, represent passion, and the image she brings up of an onion bringing tears to her lover's eyes could mean different things in different contexts.
The two poems both present relationships that involve strong feelings. The portrayal of the mother and partner however are the other way round from what one might expect. Duffy conjures up a romantic view of her mother, with Hollywood images as a metaphor for the freedom the mother enjoyed as a youth. It is ironically the romantic partner that gets the blunt but honest treatment. This is perhaps representative of the kind of relationship Duffy has with the respective parties. Her mother has earnt respect and deserves to be treated with reverence. In addition, when thinking about the past one is unlikely to think of the bad memories – 'Before You Were Mine' is nostalgia for a previous life, one that Duffy did not experience, but she feels grateful to her mother for giving it up. Not that the poet has no less prosaic things to say about her feelings for her partner than are expressed, but 'Valentine' is more about the here and now. It makes good use of an original image to be honest and different. It brings up the passion of a relationship she is experiencing first hand, without the need for clichéd or romantic imagery.