This poem seems to be a simple one at its surface, but it is certain that it has risen out of very complex emotions. There is the bitterness of loss, the sweet memories of the past, the realization of the Brevity of human life, and the inability to justify death.
A Photograph: Critical Analysis
The poet has had a very difficult time dealing with her mother’s death. Perhaps she had been very close to her mother. That certainly seems to be the case going by this poem. It is clear that her mother used to share her innermost thoughts with the poet. The vice versa must have been true as well. In order to cope with this great loss, the poet takes recourse to all the wonderful memories she has of her mother, as well as old photographs of her mother and her extended family. The photograph and the memories serve her well. For just a few moments, she finds relief by looking at her mother’s sweet face. This makes her realize that life is short, and hence, we must cherish every moment we get to spend with our loved ones. She takes consolation in the fact that her mother had no great regrets about her own life. Even after all this, the poet cannot justify why her mother had to die and leave her behind. Death is an unavoidable circumstance. As soon as a man is born, he is also condemned to a death sentence. We are all aware of this theoretically. Yet when we see someone close to us dies, we feel that God has been unjust to us. This is exactly what the poet feels. However, she is unable to vocalize what effect her mother’s death has had on her own. She only says that it has left her speechless.
A Photograph: Poetic Devices
The poet does not follow any identifiable rhyme scheme in this poem.
This rhetorical device is used in many ways to represent one thing with the help of an entirely different one. In this poem, the poet uses the device of synecdoche in the form of part for whole in the 9th line. She writes the word “feet,” but she means the whole body, for the bodies of her mother and younger cousins are not immortal but only alive for a short time on earth.
This rhetorical device is used to bestow human qualities on something that is not human. In this poem, the poet uses the device of personification in the 19th line when she gives ‘silence’ the ability to stop the poet from speaking.
A Photograph: Central Idea
The poet begins this poem by describing a photograph of her mother in her childhood. The photograph was taken when the poet’s mother was twelve years old and on a day when she had gone to the beach with her cousins. It was a favorite photograph of her mother’s, and her mother often used to reminisce about the day when it was taken. It has been twelve years since the poet’s mother died, and since the poet cannot talk about her death, she chooses instead to celebrate her mother’s life by looking at an old photograph of her glory days.
A Photograph: Theme
The contrast between the planned past and unknown future:
In this poem, the photograph represents a planned past. The way in which the children were dressed up to go to the beach was planned by their parents. Their arrangement within the photograph itself, with the tallest and oldest girl in the middle and the two shorter and younger ones at the side, was also meticulously planned. The way their smiles were captured by the uncle was also planned. As opposed to this, the family had no control over the children’s future. As we read through the poem, we realize that the poet’s mother must have been between the ages of 60 and 70 when she died. Considering the average life cycle of a man, this is quite a young age at which to die. There was nothing the family could do to stop this death. Perhaps the poet’s mother had been struck by some fatal disease, or perhaps she had died in an accident. In any case, there was no way that this grim future could have been predicted. The contrast between the joyful past and the scary future is, therefore, a wide one and provides for much of the sadness that the poet exudes toward the end of this poem.
Death leaves you speechless:
The poet has been helpless to stop her mother’s death. She has simply had to accept it. She misses the sound of her mother’s voice and her loving words as well. This silence that the death has caused in her mother has also echoed in the poet herself. She cannot talk about how her mother’s death has affected her. The silence that death brings in your loved ones also leaves you silent.
The Brevity of Life:
The poet’s mother was twelve years old when the picture was taken. She used to talk about that picture twenty or thirty years later. That is, she used to look back to her childhood at the age of thirty-two or forty-two. Perhaps she was going through a midlife crisis. In any case, she had begun to realize that she had started aging and that sooner or later, she would have to die and leave the earth behind. She had realized that life is very short and that she should enjoy every moment as much as she had enjoyed such visits to the beach when she was a little girl. This is a realization that the poet also has. There is no way of knowing when your loved ones may suddenly leave your side. Hence, it is important to cherish every moment you have with them. This thought may also have been accompanied by the thought of her own death. The poet would also have to die one day since no man is immortal. Before she dies, she must live her life to the fullest and never let sorrow conquer her.
A Photograph: Tone
The tone of this poem undergoes a great change from the beginning of the poem to its end. At first, the tone is both nostalgic and joyful as the poet looks at an old photograph of her mother in her girlhood. The spirit of nostalgia continues as she recounts how her mother would often look at the photograph and reminisce about the day when it was taken. A tone of sadness creeps in when the poet compares the unchanging sea with the brevity of human life. At the very end of the poem, she becomes silent as she cannot vocalize how sad her mother’s death has made her.
“A Photograph” is one of the most relatable poems written by Shirley Toulson. Its predominant mood is one of nostalgia. Nostalgia is, of course, something that all readers can connect to. It is certain that all readers have moments at which they can just get lost in memories of the past. These moments especially occur when we are experiencing some anxiety about the future or when we have lost a loved one. Therefore, it is easy to sympathize with the poet’s emotions in this poem. You can also refer to the Line by Line Summary of A Photograph.
You can take a look at the detailed Video Playlist containing the Summary, Analysis, and much more from the poem:
Updated by Anjali Roongta on 29th April 2023.
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