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Monday, July 23, 2012

Detailed Explanation and Practice Questions : 'A Photograph' by Shirley Toulson


This poem by Shirley Toulson is a tribute to her mother. One day, she finds an old photograph of her mother, pasted on a cardboard sheet; a photograph she remembered her mother talking about with fondness.

Line-wise summary:



1) The cardboard (photograph) shows the narrator who it was that day (poetic device: allusion as the cardboard’s lack of durability hints at the lack of permanence of human life)

2) When two of her mother’s cousins went paddling (on the beach, with the narrator’s mother)

3) Each of the cousins held one of her mother’s hands.

4) Her mother was the eldest – about twelve years old at this time.

5) All three of them stood smiling, their hair strewn across their face (possibly tossed by the beach wind or water) (poetic device: alliteration... stood still to smile)

6) As her mother’s uncle clicked their picture with a camera. Her mother’s face was sweet.

7) And the picture was taken much before the narrator was born.

8) The sea in the picture is still the same today (has changed very less)

9) And in the picture it seems to wash their feet which by nature, are transient because human life is short-lived as compared to nature. (Poetic device: Transferred Epithet. Human life itself is temporary not the feet. When the adjective for one noun like life is transferred to another noun like feet, it is called transferred epithet. It is also alliteration due to the repetition of the ‘t’ sound but Transferred Epithet is the dominant device here.)

10) Some twenty, thirty years later from when the picture was clicked,


11) her mother had looked at the snapshot and laughed. She had pointed out her cousin Betty and Dolly and talked nostalgically of how oddly they used to be dressed for the beach.
 The sea holiday was remembered by her mother with a fondness as well as a sense of loss because that time would never return.

12) Similarly, her laughter would never return to the narrator. The sea holiday was the narrator’s mother’s past and her mother’s laughter is the narrator’s past.

13) Both these pasts, the sea holiday as well as the laughter of her mother are remembered with a difficult and yet easy sense of loss. (Poetic device: oxymoron. The coming together of two opposite ideas to describe the same entity. ‘Laboured’ and ‘easy’ are opposite words describing the same entity ‘loss’. The loss of the holiday and the laughter was easy because these things have to be accepted as a part of life. They are merely a part of the past and cannot be brought back or relived. However, precisely because they cannot be relived, there will always be a tinge of difficulty letting them go completely. They will always be seen as loss.)


14) Now, it has been twelve years since her mother passed away. The girl in the photograph seems like a different person altogether. Thus, the use of the words, ‘that girl’.
15) And about the fact that her mother has passed away leaving behind nothing but memories and photographs like this one,

16) there is nothing to be said. It is a part of life and on thinking of it, one really has no words to express how one feels.

17) The silence of the whole situation silences the poet and leaves her quiet. (poetic device: alliteration and personification. The situation has been given the human quality of silence and the sound of ‘s’ has been repeated)

The camera thus managed to capture a moment in time. It kept the memory of the mother and for the mother alive. The sea holiday brought a sad smile (wry) to the mother’s face because she couldn’t relive it but was glad that she once had.
Similarly, thinking of her mother’s laughter brought a sad smile to the poet’s face because although that laughter was now gone she was glad to have once had it in her life.

Nature is perennial while human life is temporary or transient. The poet uses a transferred epithet (terribly transient feet) in order to make this comparison and highlight the terribly short-lived life of her mother.

As in the Portrait of a Lady, this poem also deals with the theme of loss and bereavement and the impact it leaves on those who are left behind.

Reference to Context (RTC) questions:

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.

a. What does the cardboard refer to?
b. Who was the big girl and how old was she?
c. How did the cousins go paddling with mother?

2. 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

a. Who does ‘all three’ refer to here?
b. Where are they now?
c. Why did they smile through their hair?

3...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.

a. Where was her mother?
b. When did this incident take place?
c. How is the poet able to remember her mother’s childhood?
d. What has stood the onslaught of time and what has not?

4. 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.”

a. Who would laugh at the snapshot after twenty – thirty years later?
b. How did mother remember her past?
c. Who were Betty and Dolly?


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

a. Who went for the sea holiday in the past?
b. What does ‘both’ refer to?
c. How does the poet feel when she remembers her mother?

7. 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.




16 comments:

  1. An awesome expression of feelings and the unjustification of the nature in terms of such beautiful instances of life.(sic)..

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  3. thanks a lot for giving such a brief idea of this poem.......

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  4. It was really helpful.Thanks a lot.

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  5. this is the way to explain a poem ...line by line ....
    The only shorting coming is it doesn't give the idea of the imageries used here like the visual imagery auditory imagery etc.


    Thanks a lot .

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  6. This poem is very sentimental and beautifully written.

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  8. Thnxx teachers in class should learn to explain like this ... excellent !!.

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  9. just what I needed..!! thanks! :-)

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  10. Thank you soooo much!! Amazing explanation.. wish my teacher would do the same!!!:)

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