girl walking through bleak streets

Mean Time

Introduction

The speaker in “Mean Time” struggles with her deep sadness and remorse after ending a relationship. Walking through the “bleak streets”, she imagines going back in time and changing the past, but soon realises she is “beyond all light” and there is no hope of reconciliation.

Mean Time

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

Mourning Our Love

The poem is set in “the wrong part of town” which normally signifies a dangerous and intimidating place, so it seems to suggest the speaker has been left emotionally exposed and vulnerable by the breakup. She belongs somewhere else and is no longer welcome in these “bleak streets”. The long vowel sounds in these two words add further stress to the ominous tone of the cityscape.

The “rain” is described as “unmendable”. Perhaps the speaker could not find the right words to express her immense loss and had to invent a new adjective instead. The image does vividly convey the irreversible damage caused by the end of the relationship because it is impossible to put rain back together. The idea is absurd.

Carol Ann Duffy uses enjambment to separate “unmendable rain” from the verb “fell” in the next line. This downward movement helps the reader visualise both the drops and the speaker’s weariness. The falling rhythm of the trochaic “fell to” reinforces her fatigue as she stumbles from one street to the next, unable to make sense of her breakup.

The speaker pokes fun at the pathetic fallacy of the “rain” and “bleak streets” in the parenthetical “of course”. She is laughing at the silliness of thinking the whole world is reflecting her misery. Perhaps the act of “mourning” reveals the true depth of her grief and sorrow.

She can feel her “heart gnaw” at their “mistakes”. The personification of her “heart” biting relentlessly on pieces of her past conveys an unstoppable sense of guilt and regret for what happened. Duffy mimics the rhythm of fierce chomping by mixing the consonance of /t/ in “felt”, “heart” and even “at” with the assonance in “gnaw” and “all”. Her “heart” cannot let go of the “mistakes”.

The Title

“Mean Time” is a reference to our local clock system – Greenwich Mean Time. The measurement was taken at Greenwich observatory in London and soon became the international standard of civil time around the world. Importantly, Duffy’s poem opens with the clocks going back “an hour”. This shift occurs at the end of Daylight Savings Time on the last Sunday in October to make sure the winter evenings are brighter. It also means your walk to school is darker in the morning.

Setting the poem during this pivotal moment in the year is appropriate because the start of the “endless nights” of winter reflects the speaker’s own sense of overwhelming hopelessness and gloom. There is no “light” left in her “life”.

The title also plays with the idiom “in the meantime”. The phrase could suggest the forlorn speaker cannot escape her grief until something changes in her life. Or she is stuck in the miserable “meantime” rather than the alternative version described in the third stanza where there are no “mistakes”, and the lovers remain together.

By separating “mean” and “time”, Duffy is emphasising how life can be cruel because there are no second chances. This personification of “time” being “mean” is picked up immediately in the opening lines. The “clocks” are depicted as wicked thieves who have robbed the speaker of a valuable possession – her “light”. The reader can easily imagine how this attack would make her feel vulnerable and angry. 

The verb “slid” compares time turning back by “an hour” to someone slipping uncontrollably. Perhaps the speaker is finding it difficult to maintain her own physical and emotional balance as she walks through the “unmendable rain” contemplating her lost love.

Finally, it is worth noting “Mean Time” was published in 1993 and served as the title for the Duffy’s fourth collection of poetry. All those scenes depicted in the book of her childhood to adulthood have helped determine who she is now, including this moment of loss and anguish.

The Darkening Sky

In the third stanza, the speaker wishes the clocks could go back “more than one hour” so she could silence the words spoken and heard. She wants to shift from the past tense “said” to the present tense “say”.

We have all imagined going back in time and making changes to our lives. It is a natural response to grief and loss. However, the speaker knows it is impossible to fix the “rain” and stop the “darkening sky”. Duffy uses various tricks to deflate the hope offered by this fantasy, such as the conjunction “if” to make the sentence conditional and the uncertainty of the modal verb “could”. There is also the clever break between “lift” and “more” because the enjambment undermines the positive connotations of the two words.

The clocks go back on this particular evening but not far enough to save the relationship. The coming of winter is inevitable, and the speaker has to learn to live with her loss.

Form and Structure

Written in free verse, Duffy plays with meter to help convey her thoughts. For instance, the irregular line length and enjambment encode her feelings of emptiness because it always seems like we are falling into the next image in search of meaning. She is in the “wrong part of town”.

Another good example is the alliteration of /s/ in “slid” and “stole” in the opening lines which draws our attention to the two actions and makes the personification obvious to the listener. However, the consonance of /l/ disrupts the potential iambic feet set up by “the clocks” and “and stole”:

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

This broken and falling rhythm in the middle of these two trimeters is appropriate because the speaker is finding it hard to process the end of her relationship.

The poem is divided into four quatrains with no obvious rhyme scheme. Some end rhymes hint at structure, such as the echoes in “light” and “nights” or “streets” and “mistakes”, but the absence of strong and secure rhymes reinforces the tremendous loss of comfort experienced in her relationship.

The poem opens with the image of “light” being stolen from the speaker and ends with the speaker being “beyond all light”. The image is a reminder of what she has lost and the everlasting emptiness we all will experience.

The Endless Nights

In contrast to the falling rhythms, the fourth stanza is split into two sentences. The stop in the second line seems abrupt compared to the previous stanzas, but the tone is now fatalistic with the speaker questioning if the relationship even mattered when they were both going to die anyway.

Wishful thinking has been replaced by resignation and existential despair. The speaker acknowledges the inevitability of death and suggests there is no hope or redemption beyond death.

The final lines emphasise the cyclical and inescapable nature of life and death. The “shortened days” and “endless nights” signify our transient existence and then the darkness of eternity. Despite our best efforts, we can never turn back the clocks.

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