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Mean Time

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English Literature

Carol Ann Duffy’s poem 'Mean Time' was first published in her 1993 poetry anthology of the same name. The poem explores the lasting impact of lost love, as the narrator deals with the ending of their relationship. Through the use of devices such as enjambment and dark imagery, Duffy produces a pessimistic tone and melancholic arch as the narrator considers why their relationship ended.

Summary of ‘Mean Time’ by Carol Ann Duffy

Written In

1993

Written By

Carol Ann Duffy

Form

Free-verse, Four Quatrains

Meter

No set meter

Rhyme Scheme

No set rhyme scheme

Poetic Devices

Enjambment

Assonance

End-stopped lines

Personification

Frequently noted imagery

Darkness

Endings

Tone

Pessimistic

Key themes

Time

Loss of Love

Meaning

‘Mean Time’ expresses the emotions one goes through after the end of a relationship. The poem has a pessimistic tone of regret, as though the narrator is reflecting on how things could have been different if they had more time.

Context of ‘Mean Time’ by Carol Ann Duffy

We will discuss the context of the poem as well as the anthology that it's a part of.

Biographical context

Carol Ann Duffy is a Scottish poet who has spent the majority of her adult life writing. Her first job after graduating was writing for television shows. Between 1982 and 1984 Duffy worked as a writer-in-residence in East End schools of London after receiving a C. Day Lewis Fellowship.

In 1983 Duffy won the National Poetry Competition and in 2009 she was appointed Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, becoming the first woman to receive the position since its creation in 1616.

Mean Time anthology

The poem 'Mean Time' is part of the collection of the same name. The collection was published in 1993 and received the Whitbread Poetry and Forward Prizes.

Mean Time is Carol Ann Duffy’s fourth poetry collection, consisting of 39 poems. The dominant theme in the collection is relationships. This theme is explored in both positive and negative lights, often in a reflective style as the narrator looks back at past events.

Do you think your reading of 'Mean Time' would change if you read it as part of the collection as a whole rather than as an individual poem?

Analysis of ‘Mean Time’ by Carol Ann Duffy

The clocks slid back an hour

and stole light from my life

as I walked through the wrong part of town,

mourning our love.

And, of course, unmendable rain

fell to the bleak streets

where I felt my heart gnaw

at all our mistakes.

If the darkening sky could lift

more than one hour from this day

there are words I would never have said

nor have heard you say.

But we will be dead, as we know,

beyond all light.

These are the shortened days

and the endless nights.

Title

The title of the poem is polysemic and its meaning is ambiguous. The title could refer to the phrase ‘in the meantime’, the period of time when one is waiting for something to happen. It could also refer to Greenwich Mean Time, the measurement of time in London. Or, if you want to be more literal in how you interpret the title, it may be a personification of time itself, giving the abstract noun the attribute of being ‘mean’.

Polysemy: a word with multiple different meanings.

What do you think the effect of this ambiguity is? Do you think Carol Ann Duffy wanted the title to be ambiguous?

Form

The poem is written in free-verse contrasting with its regular stanzaic structure made up of four quatrains. The use of free-verse creates a rhythm which flows naturally, as though the narrator is processing and expressing their emotions in the moment.

Quatrain: a stanza made up of four lines.

Structure

‘Mean Time’ consists of four stanzas each made up of four lines, also known as a quatrain. While the stanzaic structure of the poem is regular, the poem as a whole is written in free-verse with an irregular rhyme scheme.

A number of meters are used in the poem, creating a sense of detachment, as if the narrator is lost and trying to find their place. Anapaestic meter mixed with iambic meter dominates the poem, and occasionally the lines begin with a trochaic meter or falling rhythm.

Anapaestic meter: two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable.

Iambic meter: a line made up of iambs. An iamb consists of two syllables, one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

Trochaic meter: a line made up of trochees. A trochee consists of two syllables, the first one is a stressed syllable and the second one is unstressed.

The use of consonant and assonant rhymes throughout the poem creates a sense of cohesion amongst the varied line length, varied meters, and enjambment. The variety in the poem's structure underpins the state of emotional uncertainty and rawness the narrator finds themself in.

Consonant rhyme: words which contain the same consonant (non-vowel) sounds.

Assonant rhyme: words which contain the same vowel (a, e, i, o, u) sounds.

Stanza one

The opening stanza provides some clarity to the poem's ambiguous title, with a reference to the end of Daylight Savings. The narrator proceeds to compare the ending of a relationship, and the sense of loss they feel, to there being less light in the evening. This comparison indicates that the loss of the relationship has caused disruption and wrongness in the narrator's life, leaving them walking through the wrong part of town, mourning love.

Stanza two

The second stanza has the same sense of loss and despair present in the first. Pathetic fallacy is utilized to emphasize the pessimistic mood and tone of the poem:

And, of course, unmendable rain fell to the bleak streets

The image of the narrator walking in the rain while contemplating their heartbreak parallels cliché images of lost love used in romantic movies. The bleak setting underpins the poet’s feelings of hopelessness.

Pathetic fallacy: the use of weather or the natural world to convey human emotion.

Alongside this, there is a consonant rhyme between the second and final lines of the stanza with ‘streets’ and ‘mistakes’. The consonant rhyme of ‘s’ creates a sense of displacement and emptiness. We expect the rhyme to be full, yet it is incomplete, underpinning the narrator’s own feelings of loneliness.

Stanza three

In this stanza, there is a shift in the narrative. Rather than resenting their current circumstances, the narrator considers a different future:

If the darkening sky could lift

more than one hour from this day

The conjunction 'if' combined with the modal verb 'could' creates a sense of wonder, a ‘what if’. The narrator ponders whether things could have been different in the relationship if they didn’t say or do certain things. This adds an element of regret to the poem’s pessimistic tone.

Stanza four

The fourth and final stanza of the poem progresses from a tone of regret to one of resignation. The narrator accepts the 'shortened days' and 'endless nights', acknowledging that they can't change how things are. The monosyllabic language used throughout the poem supplements this tone of resignation: the narrator’s stance is clear and resolved. This is emphasised by the half rhyme of ‘light’ and ‘nights’ in the second and final line of the stanza. There is a sense of finality to the poem as the narrator continues to walk into the ‘night’ knowing that they can't return to the ‘light’ of their relationship.

Poetic devices

Let's study the poetic devices in the poem.

Enjambment

Duffy’s use of enjambment fragments the poem. The narrator’s thoughts are considered, but not entirely fluid. This lack of fluidity, combined with the use of a free-verse form, highlights how the narrator is struggling to process their feelings and hurt.

For instance, in the third stanza enjambment is used throughout:

If the darkening sky could liftmore than one hour from this daythere are words I would never have saidnor have heard you say.

Here, the use of enjambment creates pauses between each line, suggesting that the narrator is hesitant to consider how things could have been. These pauses produce a regretful tone as the narrator reflects on their actions.

End-stopped lines

Each stanza of ‘Mean Time’ ends with an end-stopped line. The end-stopped lines create pauses between each stanza, enhancing the slight shifts in the narrative across the different stanzas.

For instance, while the second stanza focuses on the narrator's action of walking through ‘the bleak streets’ in ‘unmendable rain’, the third stanza centres on the narrator wondering if things could have been different if they never ‘said’ or ‘heard’ their partner say certain words.

Through creating pauses in the poem’s rhythm at structurally obvious points (the end of the stanza) a considered element is added to the poem’s pessimistic tone. The narrator may be going through the motions of their breakup, but they’re also pondering how to express those feelings.

Assonance

Assonance is used throughout the poem to create partial rhymes between words. For instance, in the second stanza, the line

fell to the bleak streets

contains the repetition of the 'e' sound; 'fell', 'bleak', 'streets'. This assonance contributes to the poem's rhythm, allowing it to flow, as though the narrator is going through the motions of their day and the grief they are experiencing.

Language devices

The language devices of the poem include:

Monosyllabic language

The poem uses simplistic language to create a blunt and direct tone, underpinning the grief one may feel upon the ending of a relationship. For instance, in the third stanza, Duffy writes:

more than one hour from this day

there are words I would never have said

nor have heard you say.

In the final three lines of this stanza, there is one word with more than one syllable, 'never'. The use of monosyllabic, simplistic language provides a sense of clarity to the narrative poem. The language used, and the connotations it holds, are clear.

Moreover, these short simplistic words add to the poem's blunt tone by creating a steady, almost monotone rhythm. The bluntness, and apparent lack of emotion, in place of wobbling grief or lengthy complex sentences, could suggest that the narrator is struggling to get their words out, or is trying to not reveal how hurt they really are.

Why do you think Duffy uses simplistic, monosyllabic language in 'Mean Time'? What emotion and tone do you think it creates?

Personification

The personification of time is a key device in the poem. By bringing the abstract noun of time to life, the narrator makes it the antagonist of their love story, the source of their troubles. In the first stanza, the narrator says:

The clocks slid back an hour and stole light from my life

It is likely that they are referring to the clocks going back in the United Kingdom each October, causing the daylight hours to end earlier. However, by personifying 'the clocks', the narrator places the blame for this change on time itself. It is the clocks who have 'slid back an hour' and they who have 'stole light' from their life. The verb 'stole' frames time as a criminal who has selfishly taken something from the narrator.

The imagery and tone of ‘Mean Time’ by Carol Ann Duffy

Let's explore the use of imagery and tone in the poem.

Imagery

The imagery focuses on darkness and endings.

Darkness

A semantic field of darkness is evident in the poem; 'bleak', 'gnaw', 'dead', 'beyond all light', 'mourning', 'nights' and 'darkening'. This semantic field contributes to the poem's melancholic mood, creating a sense of hopelessness, as though the narrator can not bear to see the positive things in life anymore.

The bleak imagery underpins the grief and despair the author feels regarding the failure of the relationship.

Semantic field: a collection of words with similar meanings or connotations.

Endings

The poem’s narrative has a strong sense of finality to it, underpinned by Duffy’s use of regular stanzas and end-stopped lines, preventing the poem from flowing in a completely natural manner. The imagery associated with endings (‘unmendable rain’, ‘we will be dead’, ‘endless nights’) contributes to it.

The line ‘unmendable rain’ is particularly effective at expressing this sense of finality. The rain is not something that we usually try to fix yet, to the narrator, everything feels so wrong after the ending of their relationship that even the rain itself appears to be a problem they can't solve. The negative connotations of rain emphasise this, although the narrator may want to escape or mend the wet weather, they are unable to, paralleling how they may feel about being unable to mend their relationship.

Tone

There is an overarching pessimistic tone in the poem with elements of regret and resignation. The pessimistic tone of the poem is produced through Duffy’s use of blunt, monosyllabic language. The dominance of monosyllabic words creates an almost empty rhythm, as though the narrator can not bring themselves to express their feelings to a great extent.

The pessimistic tone can be divided into two parts: at first, the narrator is regretful, wondering what might have been. However, by the poem's close, the narrator is resigned to ‘the shortened days’ and ‘the endless nights’, accepting the end of their relationship.

Themes in ‘Mean Time’ by Carol Ann Duffy

The two main themes in the poem are time and loss of love.

Time

Time is the dominant theme in the poem, as highlighted by the title ‘Mean Time’ which most likely relates to Greenwich Mean Time and Daylight Savings.

Why do you think Duffy introduces time as a theme in the poem's title? Do you think this influences how we read the rest of the poem?

There is a sense that time is love's enemy, as highlighted by the personification of time in the first stanza:

The clocks slid back an hour

and stole the light from my life.

However, by the poem's close, the narrator is resigned to time’s defeat of love:

But we will be dead, as we know,

beyond all light

The repetition of light at the poem's opening and close, in relation to the theme of time, underpins the poem’s arch from regret to resignation. Time may have stolen the lights from the narrator's life, but they now accept this.

How else is time presented in the poem? Is time just the enemy of love or could it represent something else?

Loss of love

Romantic love, as with many of Duffy’s poems, is prevalent in ‘Mean Time’. However, the dominant theme is the loss of this romantic love. A sense of loss emerges in the first stanza through the use of the verb 'mourning'. The association of 'mourning' with death and the loss of a person highlights the narrator's feeling that they no longer have the love of another and must now take the time to mourn its loss.

The emptiness of losing love is further emphasised by Duffy’s use of personification in the poem's second stanza:

Where I felt my heart gnaw

Here the verb 'gnaw' evokes imagery associated with hunger and desperation, as though the heart is chewing on the final few scraps of the couple's mistakes, trying to work out what went wrong.

This theme of a loss of love contributes to the poem’s pessimistic tone. The narrator doesn't ponder on happy memories. Instead, they are overwhelmed by the regret and realisation that their relationship has come to an end.

Mean Time - Key takeaways

  • 'Mean Time' is a poem written by Carol Ann Duffy which is part of her 1993 poetry anthology of the same name.
  • The poem is written in free-verse and is made up of four quatrains.
  • The poem explores the lasting impact of lost love and contains a pessimistic tone as the narrator deals with the ending of their relationship.
  • The key themes of the poem are time and loss of love.
  • Darkness and endings are both used as imagery in the poem.

Mean Time

'Mean Time' (1993) includes the theme of love and relationships often found in Duffy's works. However, this poem specifically deals with the theme of a loss of love and impact of time on love.

'Mean Time' is about the ending of a relationship. The poem expresses the emotions one goes through after the end of a relationship.  

'Mean Time' highlights how although endings are painful, they can be unavoidable, just like the clocks turning back. This is underpinned by the poem's pessimistic tone which transforms from one of regret to resignation as the poem progresses.

'Mean Time' was published in 1993 as part of Carol Ann Duffy's poetry collection of the same name.

The poem explores the lasting impact of lost love, as the narrator deals with the ending of their relationship.

Final Mean Time Quiz

Question

When was 'Mean Time' published?

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Answer

1993

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Question

Which poetry anthology is Mean Time part of?

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Answer

Mean Time (1993)

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Question

True or false? 'Mean Time' is written in free-verse.

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Answer

True! 'Mean Time' is written in three verse with no regular rhyme scheme.

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Question

What are quatrains?

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Answer

Quatrains are stanzas consisting of four lines.

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Question

What is the poem 'Mean Time' about?

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Answer

A love affair

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Question

What is interesting about the title of 'Mean Time'?

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Answer

It is a polysemy 

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Question

What is a polysemy?

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Answer

A word which has multiple different meanings. 

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Question

True or false? 'Mean Time' has end-stopped lines at the end of each stanza

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Answer

True! End-stopped lines are used at the end of each of the poem's stanzas, creating a sense of finality.

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Question

Name two themes discussed in the poem

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Answer

Loss of love and time

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Question

Which imagery is not used in the poem?  

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Answer

Darkness

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Question

What are the two aspects of the poem's pessimistic tone?

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Answer

Regret and resignation 

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Question

What technique is used in the line;

'The clocks slid back an hour'

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Answer

Personification 

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Question

What technique is used here;

'If the darkening sky could lift

more than one hour from this day'

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Answer

Enjambment (and personification)

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Question

What is iambic meter?

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Answer

A line made up of iambs. An iamb consists of two syllables, one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

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Question

What is assonant rhyme? Give an example from the poem.

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Answer

Words which contain the same vowel (a, e, i, o, u) sounds. For instance, 'fell to the bleak streets'.

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