A Photograph Line by Line Explanation and Poetic Devices

A Photograph,Shirley toulson

Poem 1, Shirley Toulson’s “A Photograph” Summary, Theme, Line-by-Line Explanation, Analysis, Textbook Question Answers and Extract-Based Questions.

Poem 1- A Photograph by Shirley Toulson:

Shirley Toulson

Shirley Toulson (1924-1984) was a British poet and writer. Toulson’s poetry often delved into themes of nature, family, and the passage of time.

A Photograph Line by Line Explanation and Poetic Devices

Next on Hornbill: Chapter 2- “We’re Not Afraid to Die…, Poem 2- “The Laburnum Top


“A Photograph” is from the collection ‘Circumscision’s Not Such A Bad Thing After All and other poemspublished in 1970.

Summary “A Photograph”:

“A Photograph” by Shirley Toulson captures the essence of a moment frozen in time through an old photograph. It depicts the poet’s mother and her cousins on a beach, captured before the poet’s birth. The image holds memories of a bygone era, with the sea as a constant backdrop. As time passes, the poet’s mother ages and the photograph becomes a poignant relic of the past. It reflects on the transience of life and the power of photography to preserve memories. The poem evokes a sense of loss and nostalgia, with the final lines emphasising the profound silence left by departed loved ones. 

‘A Photograph’ reflects on the passage of time, the transience of life, and the power of a single photograph to preserve memories and emotions across generations.

Central Idea: A Photograph by Shirley Toulson:

“A Photograph” by Shirley Toulson explores the passage of time and the power of memory through a single image. The poem reflects on a photograph capturing a moment from the poet’s mother’s past, depicting her with her cousins on the beach. As time progresses, the poet’s mother ages and the photograph becomes a poignant reminder of a fleeting moment. The central idea revolves around the transience of life, the nostalgia inherent in memories preserved through photography, and the profound silence left by the passage of time and the loss of loved ones. Through the imagery of the sea and the photograph, Toulson conveys the enduring impact of memories and the inevitable cycle of life and death.

Explanation “A Photograph” by Shirley Toulson:

‘A Photograph’ by Shirley Toulson is a reflective and poignant poem that explores the power of a photograph to evoke memories and emotions. 

(Lines 1-3) The speaker’s journey begins with an old photograph, printed on cardboard, that captures a moment from the past. The image, a snapshot of her mother and two girl cousins paddling at the beach, depicts the innocence and joy of childhood. In taking the snapshot, the uncle unknowingly immortalised a moment that would later evoke powerful memories, inviting the readers to feel the nostalgia the photograph holds.

(Lines 4-9) emphasises the fleeting nature of time as the speaker contemplates the changes over the years. The sea, a symbol of continuity, has changed less than the people in the photograph. The mother’s face, captured in the picture before the speaker’s birth, is sweet and youthful.

(Lines 10-15) The mother’s later perspective on the photograph reveals her laughter and the beach holiday with her cousins Betty and Dolly. This laughter, now a precious memory for the speaker, connects her to her mother’s past experiences. The passage of time and the inevitable loss accompanying it are reflected upon. The mother is now gone, and the sea holiday in the photograph represents her past, while the speaker’s present is filled with the memory of her mother’s laughter. The mother’s laughter and the sea holiday have become nostalgic and tinged with a bittersweet sense of loss, inviting the readers to empathise with the speaker’s journey of memory and loss.

(Lines 16-19) delivers a powerful realisation of the present circumstances. The mother has been dead for as many years as the girl in the photograph lived, suggesting the profound impact of time and mortality. The poem ends with the idea that there are no words to express the emotions this circumstance adequately brought about. The silence surrounding the passage of time and the loss of loved ones becomes a profound statement.

Analysis “A Photograph” by Shirley Toulson:

‘A Photograph’ by Shirley Toulson is a moving and reflective poem that delves into the power of a photograph to evoke memories, the passage of time, and the complex emotions associated with loss. Through vivid imagery and reflective language, Toulson explores the transient nature of life and the enduring impact of cherished memories.

The poem begins with the speaker examining an old photograph printed on cardboard. The photograph captures a moment from the past when the speaker’s mother and two girl cousins paddled at the beach. The image portrays the innocence and joy of childhood, with the girls holding hands and smiling at the camera.

The speaker describes her mother as the “big girl” in the photograph, signifying that she was older than her cousins, perhaps by about twelve years. The photograph captures the youthful and sweet face of the mother, a version of her before the speaker’s own birth.

Toulson contrasts the unchanging nature of the sea with the transient nature of human life. The sea, a symbol of continuity, appears relatively unchanged over time, unlike the people whose lives have evolved in the photograph.

The poem then shifts to the mother’s perspective on the photograph years later. The mother, now older, looks back at the snapshot and fondly reminisces about the past beach holiday with her cousins Betty and Dolly. The mother’s laughter becomes a significant memory for the speaker, connecting her to her mother’s past experiences.

The poem further explores the passage of time and its complex emotions. The speaker and her mother share wry laughter, both acknowledging the laboured ease of loss that comes with the fleeting nature of time and memories.

In the concluding lines, the poem confronts the inevitable reality of mortality. The mother has now been dead for nearly as many years as the girl in the photograph lived. The poem addresses the profound silence that surrounds this circumstance, emphasising the ineffable nature of loss and the inability to put feelings into words.

In conclusion, ‘A Photograph” is a contemplative and emotionally charged poem that captures the essence of human experience. Toulson skillfully weaves together themes of memory, time, and loss, inviting readers to reflect on their own experiences with cherished photographs and the complexities of emotions tied to the passing of time. The poem’s powerful ending leaves readers with a profound sense of silence and contemplation, allowing them to delve into the depths of their own memories and emotions.

Tone:

The tone of the poem is reflective and nostalgic. The poet looks back on the photograph and the memories it represents with a sense of wistfulness. There is a subdued sadness and acceptance of the passage of time and the inevitability of loss. The tone also carries a touch of reverence for the memory of the poet’s mother and the enduring power of the photograph to evoke emotions.

Structure:

The poem consists of three stanzas, each with varying line lengths. The lack of a traditional rhyme scheme or meter allows the poet to convey a natural and conversational tone, which suits the reflective nature of the poem. The absence of a strict structure contributes to the poem’s sense of openness and contemplation.

Type:

The poem ‘A Photograph’ can be categorised as a lyric poem. It is a brief, emotionally charged work expressing the poet’s feelings and reflections. The poem revolves around the poet’s memories and emotions evoked by the photograph, making it a lyrical exploration of the past and its impact on the present.

Theme “A Photograph” by Shirley Toulson:

  1. Memory and Nostalgia: The poem revolves around memory and nostalgia. The photograph is a powerful trigger for memories, transporting the poet back to the moment it captures. The poet reflects on the past with a sense of longing and wistfulness, highlighting the enduring impact of memories on our lives.
  1. Time and Transience: The passage of time is a central theme in the poem. The photograph captures a specific moment in the past, contrasting it with the present. The poem acknowledges the transience of life and the inevitability of ageing and loss, as the poet’s mother has been dead for many years.
  1. Family and Generations: The poem touches on family and generational connections. The photograph depicts the poet’s mother and her cousins, representing a family bond. The poet’s contemplation of the past and her mother’s laughter bridge the gap between generations, emphasising the enduring significance of family ties.
  1. Loss and Acceptance: The theme of loss is prevalent in the poem, both in terms of the loss of the past and the loss of the poet’s mother. The poem conveys a sense of acceptance regarding the passing of time and the inevitability of death. It explores how memories can be both a source of comfort and a reminder of what has been lost.
  1. Emotion and Sentiment: Emotion and sentiment are at the poem’s core. The poet’s emotional response to the photograph and her mother’s laughter is evident throughout the poem. It explores the depth of human emotions, from the sweetness of memories to the melancholy of loss.

Symbolism:

  1. The Photograph: The photograph itself is a powerful symbol. It represents a frozen moment in time, a captured memory that transcends the limitations of the present. It serves as a bridge between the past and the present, a tangible reminder of people and moments that have passed away.
  1. The Sea: The sea symbolises the relentless passage of time and the enduring nature of the natural world. It appears unchanged in the photograph, highlighting the transient nature of human life and experiences in contrast to the timeless sea.

A Photograph Line-by-Line Explanation:

1. “The cardboard shows me how it was”

The speaker refers to the photograph as “the cardboard,” implying an old physical print that evokes past memories.

2. “When the two girl cousins went paddling,”

The photograph captures a moment when the speaker’s two girl cousins paddled, likely in water.

3. “Each one holding one of my mother’s hands,”

In the photograph, the cousins hold one of the speaker’s mother’s hands, depicting their close bond.

4. “And she the big girl — some twelve years or so.”

The speaker’s mother was older than her girl cousins, approximately twelve years old, when the photograph was taken.

5. “All three stood still to smile through their hair”

The girls, including the speaker’s mother, smile as their hair falls around their faces.

6. “At the uncle with the camera. A sweet face,”

The girls smile at the uncle who is capturing the photograph. The speaker describes her mother’s expression as “sweet.”

7. “My mother’s, that was before I was born.”

The photograph captures the mother’s expression before the speaker’s birth, suggesting a moment from the past.

8. “And the sea, which appears to have changed less,”

The sea in the photograph’s background is perceived to have changed less over time than the people in the picture.

9. “Washed their terribly transient feet.”

The sea washed the girls’ feet in the photograph, emphasising the fleeting nature of the moment and life itself.

10. “Some twenty — thirty — years later”

The speaker jumps to a later time, recalling her mother’s reaction to the photograph many years after it was taken.

11. “She’d laugh at the snapshot. “See Betty”

The mother would laugh when looking at the snapshot and would point out her cousins, Betty and Dolly, in the photograph.

12. “And Dolly,” she’d say, “and look how they”

The mother would affectionately mention her cousins’ names and comment on how they all dressed for the beach in the photograph.

13. “Dressed us for the beach.” The sea holiday”

The mother recalls the beach holiday depicted in the photograph and their fun together.

14. “Was her past, mine is her laughter. Both wry”

The beach holiday represents the mother’s past, while her mother’s laughter characterises the speaker’s present. The word “wry” suggests a subtle sense of irony or humour.

15. “With the laboured ease of loss.”

The mother’s and the speaker’s laughter carries a bittersweet quality, as it is intertwined with the experience of loss and the passage of time.

16. “Now she’s been dead nearly as many years”

The mother has been deceased for almost as many years as she lived in the photograph.

17. “As that girl lived. And of this circumstance”

The mother’s life span is now comparable to that of the girl in the photograph. “this circumstance” refers to the passing of time and the mother’s loss.

18. “There is nothing to say at all.”

The speaker implies that no words can adequately express the profound impact of her mother’s absence.

19. “Its silence silences.”

The poem concludes with a powerful paradox – the silence surrounding the circumstance of loss becomes an even more profound, highlighting the ineffable nature of grief and memories.

Literary Devices “A Photograph”:

Questions Answers “A Photograph” by Shirley Toulson:

Textbook Question Answers:

Q1: What does the word ‘cardboard’ denote in the poem? Why has this word been used?

A1: In the poem, “cardboard” denotes the material on which the photograph is preserved. It’s likely used to emphasise the photograph’s antiquity or simplicity, suggesting that it’s an old-fashioned or a relic from the past. Further, cardboard could evoke a sense of fragility, highlighting the memory’s delicate nature.

Q2:  What has the camera captured?

A2: The camera has captured a moment from the past, specifically depicting the poet’s mother and her cousins during a beach holiday. It freezes them in time, capturing their smiles, gestures, and scenery. The photograph preserves a fleeting moment of joy and connection, serving as a window into the past for the poet and future generations.

Q3: What has not changed over the years? Does this suggest something to you?

A3: The sea in the photograph’s background is described as unchanged over the years. This suggests the enduring nature of some aspects amidst the passage of time. It could symbolise constancy or continuity, contrasting with the ephemeral nature of human life and memories. Additionally, it may evoke a sense of nostalgia, as the sea remains a timeless backdrop to the fleeting moments captured in the photograph.

Q4: The poet’s mother laughed at the snapshot. What did this laugh Indicate?

A4: The poet’s mother’s laughter at the snapshot indicates a fond recollection of the past. By laughing, she expresses joy and nostalgia as she reminisces about the beach holiday depicted in the photograph. Her laughter suggests that the memory holds sentimental value for her despite the years since the moment was captured. It also reflects her ability to find humour and warmth while revisiting old memories, even as time passes.

Q5: What is the meaning of the line “Both wry with the laboured ease of Loss.”

A5: The line “Both wry with the laboured ease of loss” suggests a complex emotional response to the passage of time and the inevitability of loss. The phrase “laboured ease” conveys the contradictory nature of coping with loss—it requires effort and struggle yet becomes familiar over time. “Wry” implies a mixture of irony, humour, and sadness, indicating that while mourning becomes easier with time, the weight of loss still lingers. Overall, the line conveys the bittersweet nature of memory and nostalgia, where joy and sorrow are intertwined in the face of inevitable change.

Q6: What does “this circumstance” refer to?

A6: “This circumstance” refers to the fact that the poet’s mother has been dead for nearly as many years as she lived. It encompasses the profound silence and absence left by her passing, as well as the realisation of the passage of time and the inevitability of mortality. The phrase underscores the finality of death and the ineffable nature of the loss experienced by the poet, suggesting a sense of resignation or acceptance in the face of this circumstance.

Q7: The three stanzas depict three different phases. What are they?

A7: The three stanzas of the poem “A Photograph” by Shirley Toulson depict different phases related to the passage of time and memory:

  • The first stanza introduces the photograph and describes the moment captured with the poet’s mother and her cousins at the beach. This stanza sets the scene and establishes the image frozen in time.
  • The second stanza shifts to a later period, where the poet’s mother reflects on the photograph and reminisces. She recalls the beach holiday and comments on their attire, indicating a sense of nostalgia and connection to the memory captured in the image.
  • The third stanza brings the poem to the present, or even further into the future, where the poet reflects on the passage of time and the impact of loss. The poet’s mother has passed away, and the memory of her laughter and the photograph serve as remnants of the past. This stanza emphasises the enduring power of memory and the silence left in the wake of the departed loved one.

Extra Questions “A Photograph”:

Q1: What does the cardboard symbolise in the poem ‘A Photograph’?

A1: The cardboard represents an old photograph, a tangible reminder of a past moment frozen in time.

Q2: Describe the scene depicted in the photograph.

A2: The photograph captures the speaker’s mother and two girl cousins paddling at the beach. The girls stand still, holding hands, and smile at the uncle with the camera.

Q3: How does the speaker describe her mother’s face in the photograph?

A3: The speaker describes her mother’s face as “sweet,” reflecting her youthful and carefree expression before the speaker was born.

Q4: What does the sea symbolise in the poem?

A4: The sea symbolises continuity and permanence. Despite the passage of time, it appears unchanged, contrasting with the transient nature of human life.

Q5: How does the mother react to the snapshot years later?

A5: Years later, the mother laughs when looking at the snapshot. She nostalgically recalls the beach holiday with her cousins, Betty and Dolly, and reflects on how they were dressed.

Q6: What does the phrase “mine is her laughter” suggest?

A6: “Mine is her laughter” suggests that the speaker’s connection to her mother is tied to the memories of her mother’s laughter and the shared experiences depicted in the photograph.

Q7: What emotion is evident in the mother’s laughter and the speaker’s perspective?

A7: Both the mother’s laughter and the speaker’s perspective are wry, indicating a sense of humour tinged with irony and a contemplative acknowledgement of the passage of time and the loss of the past.

Q8: How does the poem convey the theme of the transience of life?

A8: The poem conveys the theme of transience through the image of the sea washing the girls’ feet, representing the passing of time. The mother’s laughter and the sea holiday become memories of the past, reminding readers of the fleeting nature of life.

Q9: How does the poem address the passage of time and mortality?

A9: The poem addresses the passage of time and mortality through the realisation that the mother has been dead for nearly as many years as the girl in the photograph lived. This juxtaposition underscores life’s impermanence and mortality’s impact on memories and emotions.

Q10: What is the significance of the final line, “Its silence silences”?

A10: The final lines suggest that no words adequately express the emotions brought about by the circumstances of the mother’s passing and the memories captured in the photograph. The silence symbolises the profound impact of loss and the complexities of emotions associated with time.

Extract Based Questions “A Photograph”:

Extract 1:

“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.”

Q1: What does the cardboard show the speaker in this extract?

A1: The cardboard showed the speaker a scene from the past when two female cousins paddled with his mother, with one cousin holding each of her hands.

Q2: How does the speaker describe his mother’s role in this scene?

A2: In this scene, the speaker’s mother is described as the “big girl,” and the speaker estimates her age at around twelve years.

Q3: How do these lines convey a sense of nostalgia, the passage of time, and the photograph’s enduring significance?

A3: In the first stanza of ‘A Photograph,’ Shirley Toulson poignantly portrays a photograph of a cherished past moment. The speaker reflects on this image with deep nostalgia, using the photograph as a portal to a bygone era.

The image of the two girl cousins paddling, each holding one of the speaker’s mother’s hands, evokes a sense of innocence, unity, and youthful joy. The reference to the mother as “the big girl” conveys her role as the older and more responsible figure, adding depth to the narrative.

The lines capture a fleeting moment frozen in time and hint at the passage of time itself. The speaker’s mother’s appearance in the photograph predates the speaker’s birth, highlighting the photograph’s role in connecting the present with a past they did not directly experience.

The extract emphasises the enduring power of photographs to bridge generations, evoke memories, and preserve the essence of moments long gone. It embodies the idea that even as time marches, the emotions and memories captured in a photograph remain timeless, serving as a poignant link to the past.

Extract 2:

“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
Was her past, mine is her laughter. Both wry
With the laboured ease of loss.”

Q1: How does the speaker’s mother react to the snapshot in this extract?

A1: The speaker’s mother laughs when looking at the snapshot and points out the girls, Betty and Dolly while commenting on how they were dressed for the beach.

Q2: What is the significance of the last two lines in this extract?

A2: The last two lines suggest that the sea holiday was a part of the mother’s past, but for the speaker, the memory of her laughter remains. Both their experiences are tinged with the bittersweet feeling of loss, and their emotions are wry and complicated by the passage of time.

Q3: How do these lines illustrate the evolving perspectives on the photograph, the nostalgia, and the intergenerational connection between the speaker and their mother?

A3: The second stanza of Shirley Toulson’s “A Photograph” delves into the evolving perspectives on the photograph and beautifully illustrates the complex interplay of nostalgia, memory, and generational bonds. In this stanza, the speaker’s mother revisits the image with fondness and humour some twenty or thirty years after the photograph was taken.

The mother’s laughter as she points to “Betty and Dolly” in the photograph and remarks on their beach attire suggest a heartwarming nostalgia for her childhood. It’s as if the photograph can return her to the seaside holiday. The reference to “The sea holiday” being “her past” emphasises her connection to the captured moment.

However, the stanza also reveals a profound generational connection. The mother’s laughter, prompted by the photograph, becomes a cherished memory for the speaker. The mother’s past becomes a part of the speaker’s present through sharing and reminiscing. The closing lines, “Both wry / With the laboured ease of loss,” capture the bittersweet quality of memory and the inevitability of time’s passage, underscoring the shared experience of nostalgia and the enduring bond between generations.

The extract illustrates how a single photograph can bridge the gap between generations, allowing memories and emotions to transcend time and highlighting the universal human experience of treasuring moments from the past.

Extract 3:

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

Q1: As mentioned in this extract, how long has the speaker’s mother died?

A1: In this extract, the speaker mentions that his mother has been dead for nearly as many years as that girl (the big girl in the snapshot) lived.

Q2: What does the speaker mean when he says, “Its silence silences”?

A2: When the speaker says, “Its silence silences,” he implies that the profoundness of the circumstance and the emotions it evokes are so deep that they leave him speechless. The silence itself is overwhelming.

Q3: The concluding lines reflect on the passage of time and the impact of the speaker’s mother’s death. How does this stanza convey a sense of loss, the profound effect of the mother’s absence, and the ineffable (inexpressible) nature of grief?

A3: The concluding lines of Shirley Toulson’s “A Photograph” delve into the profound impact of the speaker’s mother’s death and the ineffable nature of grief. It speaks to the overwhelming sense of loss that transcends words.

The stanza begins by noting that the speaker’s mother has been deceased for nearly as many years as the young girl in the photograph had lived. This juxtaposition of timelines highlights the relentless passage of time and the way it can diminish even the most vibrant and youthful existence into a memory.

The phrase “And of this circumstance / There is nothing to say at all” poignantly expresses the limitations of language in conveying the depth of the speaker’s grief. It acknowledges the profound emptiness left by the mother’s absence, an all-encompassing silence.

The concluding line, “Its silence silences,” encapsulates the poem’s emotional core. It suggests that the silence born of grief is so overwhelming that it stifles any attempt at verbal expression. It portrays the ineffable nature of loss, a silence that resonates in the heart, defying words and emphasising the enduring impact of the mother’s absence.

To summarise, this stanza reflects on the enduring nature of grief and the profound void left by losing a loved one. It reinforces the idea that some emotions are too deep for language to fully capture, leaving a profound silence that echoes through time.

Extract 4:

“The sea, which appears to have changed less,
Washed their terribly transient feet.”

Q1: What is the speaker’s observation about the sea in this extract?

A1: In this extract, the speaker observes that the sea appears to have changed less than other aspects of the scene, such as the people in the snapshot.

Q2: What is the significance of the phrase “terribly transient feet”?

A2: The phrase “terribly transient feet” emphasises the temporary and fleeting nature of human existence and experiences. It suggests that human lives are brief and impermanent compared to the enduring sea.

Q3: In Shirley Toulson’s poem ‘A Photograph, ‘ the second stanza references the sea and its role in the photograph. How does the sea symbolise the passage of time and impermanence in this stanza, and what more profound message does it convey about human existence and memories?

A3: In the second stanza of ‘A Photograph’ by Shirley Toulson, the sea serves as a symbolic backdrop that accentuates the transient nature of human existence and memories. The sea, which “appears to have changed less,” starkly contrasts the fleeting moment captured in the photograph.

The sea is a timeless and enduring force of nature, seemingly unaffected by the passage of time. In contrast, the reference to “terribly transient feet” emphasises the impermanence of human life and experiences. The sea washing their feet in the photograph represents the ebb and flow of time, constantly erasing and reshaping the sands beneath their feet.

This contrast between the eternal sea and the transient human presence underscores the idea that while nature endures, human existence is fleeting. Memories, like footprints in the sand, may be washed away by the tides of time. The stanza encourages contemplation of the impermanence of life and the significance of preserving memories through photographs, as they capture and preserve fleeting moments that would otherwise be lost to the relentless march of time.

YOUTUBE– Explanation for Auditory Learners ‘A Photograph

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