In Before You Were Mine, Duffy reminisces through looking at a one or more photographs of her late mother, idolizing her life and perhaps unnecessarily blaming herself for the changes she saw in her mother before and after she was born. Larkin reflects on an event that appears to have shaped a rather large part of his life: how perhaps his insecurity had led him to take out the ‘wrong’ woman, and how it was an ‘unlucky charm’ twenty years later.
Duffy and Larkin have different perspectives and positions in relation to their poem. Although both Duffy and Larkin are writing about their memories, Larkin is writing about a personal experience, whereas Duffy is looking at a photograph of her mother and imagining what her life was like. Both poets begin their poems with a reference to the time which they are going to be writing about: Duffy with ‘I’m ten years away’, and Larkin with ‘About twenty years ago’. However, the two beginnings illuminate each other. It’s only after recognising that the ‘I’m’ in Duffy’s poems is very personal (despite it not being her own memory), do we see that the ‘About’ in Larkin’s poems is in fact quite distant (even though it’s his own memory). With Larkin’s own comment later on – about being ‘withdrawn’-, it’s possible that this is just a reflection of his personality. Duffy then, whether intentionally or not, does the opposite. She places herself inside the past, by making the imaginary memory about herself. That way, the reader is willing to ‘suspend their disbelief’ and somehow acknowledge that Duffy was there before she was even physically able to. This paradox continues throughout the poem, for example in the second stanza: ‘I’m not here yet’. Duffy challenges the reader to decipher how she can be talking about herself when she is not yet anything. Therefore, we see Duffy placing herself in different time zones within the poem, further emphasising the idea that she has encompassed her mother’s life.
Both poets use verses to separate different parts of their memories. Duffy appears to be either looking at photographs, or flicking between actual memories of her mother and the ones she idealized from photographs. The first two stanzas seems to be an assumption of the idyllic life that her mother led before Duffy was born, as she is describing what is happening in the photographs rather than remembering: ‘three of you bend’, ‘you laugh’. The last two stanzas, however, appear to comprise real memories that Duffy had of her mother: ‘I remember’, ‘You’d teach’ and ‘I wanted’. However, the last sentence of the poem, returns to Duffy and her idyllic description of her mother’s life prior to having a child. Perhaps this show that Duffy cannot let go of that belief and will always return to it. Similarly, Larkin divides the ‘story’ he is telling into stanzas, moving onto the next stanza when a given amount of time has passed: ‘twenty years ago’, ‘seven years after that’ and ‘after about five’.
When looking back / thinking about the past, both poets are self-deprecating – Larkin perhaps more obviously than Duffy. Larkin himself admits that he is ‘selfish, withdrawn, / And easily bored to love’. His following statement can be taken as him casually brushing it off, but perhaps he is more hurt than he lets on but doesn’t want to reveal this: ‘Well, useful to get that learnt’. Although most people might do so begrudgingly, he implies that the reason he didn’t take out the ‘bosomy English rose’ was because he didn’t think he was good enough for her, and so settled for ‘her friends in specs’. Larkin describes the ‘English rose’ as having ‘fur gloves’ on, possible alluding to her unattainability and exotic nature: the thing that he shied away from. On the contrary, Duffy is much more reticent about the way she feels regarding her place in her mum’s life. Throughout, Duffy suggest that her mother had changed drastically since Duffy was born, and wants her to be the way she was before. Duffy describes her yell as ‘loud’ and ‘possessive’, which have negative connotations: the parent is no longer free, but owned by the child. There is a clear link here with the title, and the ownership of parents by children. Duffy also implies that her mother was no longer ‘bold’ after she was born, once again taking the blame for the cessation of her mother’s free spirit.