Summary of a Photograph – Poem

Learn about Literary Devices Through ‘A Photograph’

Literary devices play a crucial role in the way a poem is required to be read. By creating visual images and elements that feel personal, these tools are crucial for a poem to convey the message that the poet wants to convey. We will learn about such devices here with the help of the poem A Photograph by Shirley Toulson.


Author’s Introduction   

Shirley Toulson is a poet who lives in the United States. She was born in Henley-on-Thames, United Kingdom, on 20 May 1924 and had studied B.A Literature from Brockenhurst College’s Literature in London. Her famous works are The Drovers, A Celebration of Celtic Christian Saints, Sites, and Festivals More. 

Central Idea of the Poem 

Shirley Toulson’s poem ‘A Photograph’ is a loving tribute to her mother. The poem reflects the passage of time and its three stages. In the first stage, the photograph shows his mother enjoying a holiday on a beach along with her two girl cousins. She was 12 at the time. The second stage transports us to twenty or thirty years later. This stage shows the mother laughing at her picture and the way she and her cousins were dressed in the picture at a beach. In the third stage, the poet sadly remembers the dead mother with his broken heart. The photograph revives nostalgic waves in the poet. 


Summary of the Poem

  • The cardboard shows me how it was 

  • When the two girl cousins went paddling, 

  • Each one holding one of my mother’s hands, 

  • And the big girl — some twelve years or so.” 

A tattered picture of the poet’s mother and her cousins on a beach was pasted on a piece of cardboard. The photo reflected the happy memories of his mother’s childhood vacation, where she was along with her younger cousins. Holding his mother’s hands the two younger cousins walked on the shallow water of the sea. They walked barefoot enjoying the water. The poet’s mother was twelve years old in the picture. 

This stanza shows that although the picture was old, still the poet kept it close to his heart. He wanted to save his mother’s childhood memories as it made him happy too. 

The photograph also indicates how enjoyable her mother’s childhood was. 

“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.” 

The photograph shows all three girls enjoying themselves. The poet’s mother and her two cousins posed for the camera by standing still when their uncle clicked their photograph at the sea beach. As the weather was too windy at that time, their hair went flying over their happy faces. The expression on the faces of the poet’s mother and her cousins was that of happiness and joy. The mother was looking very pretty at that time and the photograph was taken a long time ago.

All those beautiful and happy memories were just memories now, his mother was dead and the poet missed her a lot. The only thing that remained unchanged is the sea which was washing down their feet. The mention of the word ‘transient’ reflects on the ever-changing lives of human beings as well as how short our lives are on this universe in contrast to the eternal life of nature which remains. The girls’ life changed drastically during this period but the sea has not changed. The stanza beautifully explains the transient nature of human beings. 

“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.”

Even 20-30 years later the mother would look at the photograph and laugh nostalgically remembering the happy memories of her past. Mother would look at the photograph and comment on the dresses worn by the cousins’ Dolly, Betty, and herself. 

The Sea holiday was her mother’s past and her mother’s laughter has become a thing of the past for the poet as her mother was now dead. The poet still remembered how her mother would laugh at the photograph remembering the sea-holiday with a fondness as well as a sense of loss because that time would never come back. In the same way, the poet feels nostalgic thinking about her mother and her laughter which has become a thing of the past. 

‘Laboured’ and ‘Ease’ can be called antonyms of each other but both of these words describe the same entity, loss. 

“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.” 

The poet’s mother has now been dead for nearly as long as the girl in the photograph. The poet is at a loss for words to express her feelings about her death. It’s a solemn moment, and its silence has rendered her speechless. As a result, the poet pays homage to her mother. The old snapshot is what brings her to a halt. 

Explanation: The poet recalls that it has been nearly twelve years since her mother had died. The poet is consumed with grief but is left with no words to express her loss and pain. The poet is totally absorbed in memories of her dead mother. The painful silence of this situation leaves the poet speechless. The poet can feel the grief but is unable to express it through words. The silence caused by death makes the atmosphere gloomy, where no one is able to utter words. 

This poem is a tribute to the poet’s mother by visiting happy memories of her childhood through a photograph.  

Literary Devices in a Photograph 

Alliteration uses a consonant sound at the start of two or more words in a row. The following are examples of alliteration in the poem: 

Stood still 

Through their 

My mother’s 

Terribly transient 

Silence silences 

Oxymoron: An oxymoron is a literary device in which two opposing ideas are combined to generate an effect. In the poem, the phrase ‘laboured ease’ is an oxymoron. The word ‘laboured’ indicates ‘difficulty,’ while ‘ease’ means ‘comfortably.’ Both words have opposing connotations, although they are used interchangeably here.   

‘It’s quiet silences,’ for example, is a good example of personification. The scenario has a human quality of silence to it. 

A term conveying a trait of a person or object is called an epithet. 

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. Why is a Piece of Cardboard Important for the Poet?

The piece of cardboard is so special to the poet because it has an old photograph of his mother pasted to it. That picture is of her mother’s childhood vacation, where she stood with her two younger cousins alongside. This picture made the poet remind of the ephemeral nature of the time as her mother is no more with her.

2. What did port want to convey here:

And the sea, which appears to have changed less,

Washed their terribly transient feet.”

Poet wanted to explain the transient or ever-changing nature of human life in this world. He explains how the sea which washed their feet remained the same but her mother was no more alive. Nature remains unchanged and humans live a short life compared to nature.

3. What has been captured by the camera? 

On the beach, the poet’s mother and two cousins, Betty and Dolly, were captured by the camera. They went paddling, and her mother’s uncle snapped a photo in the middle of it. Her mother was about twelve years old and in the middle of her pregnancy. She was clutching the hands of her cousins who were standing by her side. It was one of her mother’s favourite childhood recollections. 

4. What has been constant over time? Does this make any sense to you?

The lines ‘And the sea, which looks to have altered less’ show that the sea that kissed her mother’s feet has remained unchanged over time. Her mother and cousins, on the other hand, grew older. The sea represents eternity and immortality. Humans have a finite lifespan and must die at some point. Life isn’t meant to be forever. The poet was saddened by her mother’s death twelve years ago, and her favourite childhood memory is of her laughing. 

5. What does the phrase “Both wry with the laboured ease of loss” mean?

The following sentences imply that when the poet’s mother viewed an old photograph, she felt sad because her childhood days would never return. That is only a collection of recollections. While the poet’s mother died twelve years ago, she still misses her and remembers her laughing and pointing out the costumes they used to wear on beach vacations. They had both misplaced something.

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