Duffy’s Editing in First Love

When I visited MARBL I thought the most intriguing thing about Duffy’s manuscripts was the editing that took place between her original scribbles and her final publishing. I realized her small changes in diction and elimination of several phrases really made a distinict difference to the tone and meaning behind her Mean Time poem First Love.

Looking at Duffy’s notes, she originally opened First Love with a short background into the relationship that inspired this poem. Readers get a sneak peek into the love when it was first beginning.  Duffy’s manuscripts began, “the day you smiled at me, at the top of the stairs/ by the music room, I swear there were stars/ in my eyes”.  I believe Duffy decided to omit this section because the rest of the poem is a retrospective view on her first love; the poem is reminiscing on the powerful emotions and memories that still tie the narrator to their old relationship. This added back-story shows the love when it was just starting and naïve. It is interesting to notice this imagery of stars was still used later in line 11: “a star, long dead…the size of a tear”. Duffy conserved the image of stars in her eyes with comparing the star to a tear.

The end of line 10, “wherever you are”, was added later in her editing. I think Duffy added this line to emphasize this lover is no longer in the narrator’s life. This addition also gives the readers a sense of longing and regret that the narrator feels at the loss of this person from their life.

Duffy’s published lines 7 and 8 were originally written: “the pictures return, blood-red at first, then/relaxed, colorless, a silent film played at the wrong speed.” Duffy changed the descriptions of her memories to “unfocused… then/almost clear…an old film played at a slow speed”. These changes in diction better represents a person fondly looking back at happy memories.

When I looked at Duffy’s manuscripts I noticed that she spent a lot more time and paper on the last stanza. Duffy rewrote lines 11 and 15 many times, exchanging words and removing phrases. When she was brainstorming Duffy originally included “desire” and “first love” in the final scene with the flowers; she initially “unseen/flowers and first love suddenly pierce and sweeten the air.” I thought it was interesting that these words were later omitted, but she reused them as the title for the poem. Duffy also described the star in line 11 as a “brilliant ghost”, but later took it out. Duffy struggled between “your name erased to the scent” to “nameless flowers” to “unseen flowers”. I think this editing helped to portray to readers that their first love can never be forgotten or their lover’s name could not be erased. I think this change helps to support the poem’s theme that a first love might be lost, but it is eternal and will always be remembered.

I also thought it was interesting that at the end of the poem, Duffy originally returns to the garden from the first stanza in line 14. The narrator originally said “I walk in this garden alone” before the scent of flowers is introduced to the readers.  Reading this in the MARBL helped me to better understand where the seemingly random appearance of flowers stems from.


One Comment on “Duffy’s Editing in First Love”

  1. Brian Croxall says:

    Thanks for the careful reporting of these details, Chelsea. It is interesting to note how much these small words can totally change the feeling of a poem. If this was Hemingway writing, he’d say that it was important to cut back to the essence of the poem and not to tell extraneous details. I don’t know that Duffy would feel the same way, even if she does cut back the opening lines that she had drafted.