Summary of A Photograph by Shirley Toulson

Summary

The poem consists of 19 lines in total. Since these lines are not divided into stanzas, they are divided into meaningful segments here for the purposes of this summary in order to make the poem easier to understand and follow. This poem is written in the first person, hence it is safe to assume that the speaker of the poem is the poet herself.

Lines 1 – 4:

The cardboard shows me how it was
When the two girl cousins went paddling
Each one holding one of my mother’s hands,
And she the big girl – some twelve years or so. 


In these lines, the poet describes looking through a photo album, the pages of which seem to be made of cardboard. She is looking at one picture in particular. It is a picture of three girls, the tallest and oldest one in the middle and two younger and shorter ones at each side of her. The girl in the middle is the poet’s mother, and the poet speculates that her mother must have been around twelve years old when the picture was taken. The other two girls are two of her mother’s cousins. Each of the cousins is holding on to one of the older girl’s hands for support. The picture has been taken on a day that the three girls had gone paddling at the beach.

Lines 5 – 9:

All three stood still to smile through their hair
At the uncle with the camera, A sweet face
My mother’s, that was before I was born
And the sea, which appears to have changed less
Washed their terribly transient feet. 

In these lines, the poet further describes the conditions in which the photograph of her mother and her mother’s cousins was taken. The poet says that her mother’s uncle had been the one to take the photograph. He had asked the three girls to pose for him, and so they had. They had left their wet hair open, and their hair was obscuring part of their faces. Through the film of hair covering their mouths, one could see that they were smiling into the camera. However, one face in the picture draws the poet’s attention to a greater degree than the other two faces. It is her mother’s face that she is concentrating on, and she comments that the face was a sweet one. The poet also says that the photograph was taken long before her own birth. Since then, her mother’s face had of course changed since the time the photograph had been taken. In contrast to this, the sea which lay along the beach where the photograph was taken had changed to a lesser degree. That very sea had been washing the feet of the poet’s mother and her two younger cousins the day the photograph had been taken. The poet calls those feet “terribly transient” since all the girls in that photograph had stopped being so young and had grown up since then. Their childhood hasn’t lasted very long.

Lines 10 – 13:

Some twenty- thirty- years later
She’d laugh at the snapshot. “See Betty
And Dolly,” she’d say, “and look how they
Dressed us for the beach.” The sea holiday

In these lines, the poet stops looking at the photograph and recalls what her mother used to say about the photograph. The poet isn’t sure whether it was twenty years after the photograph was taken, or thirty years after it, but she remembers her mother telling her to look at how the cousins, called Betty and Dolly, looked at that young age. The poet’s mother also asked her to look at how their parents had dressed them up for a visit to the beach. Perhaps the plan to take the photograph had been there all along.

Lines 14 – 15:

was her past, mine is her laughter. Both wry
With the laboured ease of loss

In these lines, the poet says that her mother used to consider the photograph as an inroad to the past that she had left behind. On the other hand, the poet herself considered the memory of her mother laughing as a relic of the past that she missed every day. In both cases, the memories of the past made the two women contemplating them feel disappointed as they tried hard to come to terms with what they had lost.

Lines 16 – 19:

Now she has been dead nearly as many years
As that girl lived. And of this circumstance
There is nothing to say at all,
Its silence silences. 

In these lines, the poet says that her mother has been dead for the past twelve years, that is, the same number of years that was the age of her mother in the photograph she had been looking at. The poet is able to think of her mother’s death, but she has no words with which to explain how that death has affected her. The fact that the death has silenced her mother has also left her speechless.

Suggested Reading: Summary of A Photograph by Shirley Toulson in Hindi

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