A Photograph by Shirley Toulson is a tender yet jolting piece that revolves around the universal theme of loss and separation – an inevitable reality that is a common lot of mankind. Through the stock symbol of a photograph, evoked in many literary pieces to denote nostalgia and remembrance, the poet articulates the void she feels upon having made uncomfortable peace with her mother’s death. The poem is tender because of the heart-touching manner in which it has expressed nostalgia born of loss to the passage of time and the final rest; the jolting attribute comes from the harsh message it sends across about how humans can never be entirely adept at accepting irreversible separation from a loved one.
By presenting the summary of the poem, A Photograph, we at Beamingnotes want to enable our readers to understand the deep significance behind seemingly simple actions and memories, in turn expounding upon human emotions of deep-rooted pain.
A Photograph: Summary
“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.”
The ‘cardboard’ here refers to the thick stiff photo paper used in the pre-digital photography era to develop prints and store memories. It is interesting to note that instead of writing about memories about her mother directly, the poet takes the help of the prop of a photograph to convey to the readers that she is reminiscing about her mother. Reminiscing, in itself, is a rather abstract nostalgia-influenced act, which the poet has successfully made concrete and empirical by adding to it the specific action of looking at an old photograph of the one she is missing terribly.
Think about it. Isn’t it a general human tendency to revisit old pictures in your galleries when we miss a certain person or time of our life?
Photographs are beautiful aides of nostalgia because each picture, no matter how candid or well-framed, has a story to tell. Shirley Toulson then shares with us the story behind the photo she is holding in her hands, taking us to the time when her deceased mother had gone to the beach for some paddling as a young girl, in the company of her two younger cousin sisters. In the picture, the sisters are each holding her mother’s hand, she being the eldest among all at about twelve years of age. It might seem that the poet is just mentioning the mother’s age in passing; however, the act of picking out a picture from her mother’s childhood is a well-thought-out one. It helps accentuate the harsh reality of the mother’s loss, which is conveyed to us at the end of the poem by contrasting this loss of life with the playfulness of youth. The poet details how each of the sisters is holding her mother’s hand – even in a photograph from her childhood, the poet’s mother had a protective aura about her. This image helps readers feel the motherly presence that the poet perhaps wished to convey so that she can make the loss of the same more pronounced at the end of the poem. Taking all of these significations underlying the photograph into account, the opening sentence of the verse carefully sets the mood and tone for the poem and its overarching subject of losing a mother.
“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 transient feet.”
In the second line, the poet talks in tender details about how the girl’s uncle had captured her mother in space and time through a camera, at a point when she had a lot of life ahead of her, waiting to be lived. The camera then becomes an interesting tool of nostalgia, used to always provide food for fond remembrances by means of pictures. “Through their hair” is an expression used to denote how the three girls are smiling their widest smile – a smile so broadly spread across their faces that it seems to reach the strands of hair falling on the sides. She describes her mother’s face as one full of sweetness, instantly drawing tender emotions from the readers due to the beautiful way in which the poet likes to think of her mother from the time when she herself hadn’t come into her life. Through the words, “before I was born,” the poet draws a distance between herself and her mother, which, in the second sentence, isn’t a painful one. However, this distance takes on a woeful note once we discover later in the poem that the poet has lost her mother.
After appreciating the sweetness that defines her mother’s youthful face, Shirley shifts her poetic gaze onto the sea and casually remarks on how the endless water body has not changed much over time. Thus, the sea here symbolizes eternity, against the infinite vastness of which human lives appear even more evanescent in comparison. This evanescence of human lives is touched upon further when the poet mentions how the sea washed the three sisters’ “terribly transient” feet. The words “transient feet” exemplify the literary device of a transferred epithet where a noun is made to take on the attribute of the human the noun is associated to. Over here, the girls’ “feet” are called transient because it is their own lives that are transient due to the universal reality that every living soul has a shelf life, with its time cut out on earth – a reality that reduces humans to a transient presence in this world. This literary device brings to the mind a beautiful quote penned by Thomas Carlyle on which he says, “One life – a little gleam of Time between two eternities.”
“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
was her past, mine is her laughter. Both wry
With the labored ease of loss.”
In this line, the poet remembers fondly how her mother would laugh at the probably hilarious way she and her sisters were dressed for the beach. This seemingly casual laughter has meaning if we look below the surface. When we grow older and are made to become mature and serious over time, we often outgrow the youthful care that could once be felt toward small little things like a visit to the beach and how even such small events were accompanied with efforts to dress up and look the part. This casual remark of the mother that the poet shares with us emboldens the underlying current of nostalgia over things lost to time that binds the whole poem together. Then the poet draws the contrast between the two pasts this poem flits between – one of the mother’s and one of Shirley’s. The mother’s past was enshrined in the photograph, representing her youthful, happy days, while the poet’s past comprises a time when she had her mother’s laughter that would brighten up the days. It is interesting to note here how both histories presented in the poem have laughter and happiness in them, which serves to ratify the theme of loss that is then presented in the following sentence, “Both wry with the labored ease of loss.” This is indeed a beautiful choice of words. “Labored ease” is an oxymoron that represents the difficulty and struggles one has to go through to arrive at the point where accepting loss and death becomes possible and a part of our daily lives. It is this labored ease that turns even the happiest laughter-filled memories wry by tinging them with emotions of pain and loss.
“Now she’s 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 this sentence, the poet finally reveals that the subject of the photograph she is holding, her mother, has been dead for about twelve years, the same age she was when the picture had been taken. This painful universal circumstance of loss to death that all humans invariably experience in their lives has rendered without words the same poet who was so far being so articulate about the smallest of details in the picture. The poet is speechless because once a daughter has lost her mother to death, nothing can be said about a profound loss, a pain so grave. This sentence implies that even the best of poets sometimes fail to give exact expression to such brutal pain because of how deep it goes inside the human psyche, its presence too all-encompassing and profound at the same time to be conveyed in words. Hence, the best way the poet can do justice to this pain is by saying that “Its silence silences” – meaning it’s a loss that sometimes even fails her poetic pen when she tries to write about it. This is because the dictionary probably does not have enough words to lend proper articulation to such pain. And then, like the poet, one has to take a resort in nostalgia and fond memories of the past to soothe their hurting self. And the silence makes such nostalgia a habit more than an act of remembering – something that the poet earlier hints at through the words “labored ease.”
Through this A Photograph summary, we hope we have been able to help you understand how Shirley Toulson has tried to keep her mother alive in her memories by taking help of the memories her mother wished to keep alive from her youthful days. This memory within a memory trope is a beautiful way to strengthen the theme of nostalgia that defines the poem – a nostalgia that takes on a painful turn when the poet has to once again comes to terms with the fact that her mother, the young girl smiling in the picture, is but gone.
We hope this poem has gotten you all thinking as much as it got us thinking about the presence of nostalgia in our lives and the “labored ease” with which we teach ourselves to accept loss and pain, albeit ineffectually. Doesn’t this poem raise some uncomfortable questions about our own respective journeys of first losing and then accepting the consequent void? I can personally relate this poem a lot to the loss of my aunt and the photographs that I printed out to keep revisiting her in my mind. And you?
A Photograph: Analysis
Title: The poem “A Photograph” is composed in blank verse. Its title is very much appropriate as it reminds the poet of his mother. A photograph is something that captures a certain moment of someone’s life. The person might change in the course of time, but the memories attached to the photograph are eternal. In this poem, the poet’s mother is no more, but the photograph makes her memories come alive. The mother’s sweet face or her cousins heavily dressed up for the beach have all changed with time, but the moment captured in the photograph still gives happiness to the poet’s mother when she views it thirty to forty years later.
Allusion: An Allusion is a reference or an incidental mention of something, either directly or by implication. An example of an allusion from “A Photograph” is the cardboard (photograph) itself. The durability of the cardboard shows the lack of permanence of human life.
Alliteration: Alliteration is the repetition of the initial letter (generally a consonant) of several words marking the stressed syllables in a line of poetry.
“stood still to smile” is an example of alliteration from the poem.
Transferred Epithet: A transferred epithet is a description that refers to a character or event but is used to describe a different situation or feeling. “Transient feet” is a transferred epithet in the poem, “A Photograph.” It refers to the human feet, but it describes the lack of permanence of human life. The sea is constant and eternal, while the human feet being washed away by the sea are transient.
A Photograph: Solved Question Answers
1. Comment on the tone of the poem.
The tone of the poem is that of sadness. Shirley Toulson looks at an old photograph of her mother and is reminded of her mother, who is no more. She recalls the moment when her mother was twelve years old and looked sweet and happy.
2. What is the significance of the ‘cardboard frame?’
The cardboard frame or the photograph shows the lack of permanence of human life.
3. What emotions does the poet’s mother have when she looks at the photograph?
The mother feels nostalgic looking at her bygone years. She laughs out loud and tells her daughter how her cousins had dressed up for the beach. She recalls those days when she was innocent and playful.
4. What is silenced, and how has it silenced the poet?
The death of the poet’s mother has silenced the poet.
The poet is left without words; she has nothing to say.
5. ‘Each photograph is a memory.’ Justify the statement in the light of the poem.
Photographs are memories that are captured and kept for lifetime purposes. Shirley Toulson’s “A Photograph” captures one such moment when her mother was young, and she went on a beach holiday with her cousins. Gone are these days of the mother and her cousins, but the photograph manages to bring back those memories even thirty years later. The laughter of the mother while seeing the photograph has become a past incident. But the photograph allows the poet to recall and revive the laughter through the image captured thirty years back. Therefore, photographs are indeed memories.