A Photograph By Shirley Toulson
Introduction: When you look at an old photograph it brings back memories of past events, experiences, joys, sorrows, etc. People become older with the passage of time, they might become unrecognisable due to wrinkles, posture or greying hair. You may laugh at the photograph nostalgically, remembering the past events. You may remember the smile on the loved person’s face and may laugh with a tinge of sadness that the past cannot be re-lived. The memories may produce great sadness in you. You may have an acute sense of loss. But the reality is that time is a great healer. Although the sense of loss (on the death of one’s near and dear, ages ago) may never go away completely but with time one has to accept the eventuality, mortality and lack of permanence of human life. You have to come to terms with the loss of your dear departed ones, and you have to accept the inevitable. The past memories can leave you silent, dazed as the silence in the photograph. But nature will always be there and remain unaltered with the passage of time. Nature is immortal and eternal. The sea will be there where it is, the mountain will be there where it is. Nature symbolises permanence, immortality and eternity. Human life will be ephemeral in nature and temporary and nothing can erase this naked fact.
Summary of A Photograph
The poem, “A Photograph” is written in free verse by Shirley Toulson. Nostalgically recollecting fond memories, the poet looks at a very old snapshot of her mother, who is no more. The poet is consumed with sorrow, but there are no words left to express the loss.
The poet starts the poem by looking at an old photograph of her mother when she was twelve years old. The poet’s mother is photographed with her two girl cousins, each holding one of her hands, in a cardboard frame. She was the eldest of the three siblings and had a “sweet” appearance. On an occasion when they went paddling, all three girls stand still, laughing with their hair falling on their faces, to be photographed by their uncle’s camera. Their ‘transient’ feet were washed by the sea, which appeared to have remained unchanged. The everlasting sea stands in stark contrast to this picture of transience.
Twenty or thirty years later, the poet’s mother laughed at the picture pointing how she, Betty and Dolly (the two cousins) were made to dress for a beach holiday. The sea holiday was a thing of the past for her mother at that time, although her mother’s laughter is the poet’s past. Both indicate their respective losses and the suffering involved in the recollection of the past.
The poet has little left to tell about the present ‘circumstance.’ She is absorbed in the memory of her dead mother. The excruciating ‘silence’ of the situation leaves the poet silent, without any words to describe his sorrow. Thus, the ‘silence’ silences her.
The title photograph is very much appropriate as it reminds the poet of her mother. A photograph is something that captures a certain snapshot of someone’s life. The person may change in course of time however the recollections connected with the photograph are endless. In this poem, the poet’s mother is no more but the photograph brings back her memories of her.
The mother’s sweet face or her cousins vigorously dressed up for the beach have all changed with time but the minutes captured in the photograph still offers satisfaction to the poet’s mother when she sees it thirty to forty years after later.
The poet looks at the cardboard on which there is a photographic of three girls. The bigger and oldest one in the middle and two younger and shorter ones at each side of her. The girl in the middle is the mother of the poet, and the poet speculates that when the picture was taken, her mother must have been about twelve years old. The other two girls are two cousins from her mother.
All three of them stood still shoulder to shoulder to smile at the camera through their long wet hair, the picture of which was taken by the uncle holding it. The mother had a sweet and pleasant smile before her child(the poet) was born into this world. The sea in which they were paddling; which did not seem to have changed; washed their terribly transient wet feet.
After twenty to thirty years later, the mother took out the photograph and laughed nostalgically at the snapshot. Betty and Dolly were the two cousin sisters. She found it so hilarious that they had dressed up heavily for the beach. The sea holiday was her past for the mother while it was a laughter for the speaker.
Both mother and daughter wry ; created by a distortion or lopsidedness of facial characteristics: bitterly or disdainfully ironic or funny; in the laborious ease of loss. But now, for the past few years, the mother has been dead just as one of those cousin sisters’ lives. There’s nothing else remaining to say about all these conditions. The matter is closed and its fate has been sealed by silence.
The poet reminisces that the sea holiday was the past of her mother and for her, the laughter of her mother is past now. Both the moments of life have been permanently etched in the poet’s mind with a feeling of eternal loss.
Death now has overpowered the innocence of these moments and the pleasure they treasured. The poet concludes the poem on a melancholy note with the comment that there is nothing to say or comment upon this sad event. The silence seems to silence all the other thoughts
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 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.
A transferred epithet is a description that refers to a character or event but is used to describe a different situation or character. ‘Transient feet’ is a transferred epithet in the poem, ‘A Photograph.’ It refers to the human feet but it is used to describe the lack of permanence of human life. The sea is constant and eternal while the human feet which are being washed away by the sea are transient.
Lines 1 – 4:
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 poet describes looking through a photo album in these lines, the pages of which appear to be made of cardboard. She looks at a specific photo. It is a picture of three girls the tallest and oldest one in the middle and two younger and shorter ones at each side of her. The girl in the middle is the mother of the poet, and the poet speculates that when the picture was taken, her mother must have been about twelve years old. The other two girls are two cousins from her mother. Each of the cousins holds on to one of the hands for support from the older girl. The photo was drawn on a beach on the day when the three girls had visited there for paddling.
Lines 5 – 9:
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 poet further discusses in these lines the circumstances under which her mother and her mother’s cousins were photographed. The poet claims the uncle of her mother was the one who took the photo. He had asked the three girls, and so they had, to pose for him. They had left their moist hair open and a portion of their faces were darkened by their hair. One could see that they were smiling into the camera through the hair film covering their mouths. One face in the picture, however, draws the attention of the poet to a greater extent than the other two faces. She’s focusing on the face of her mother, and she says the face was a sweet one.
The poet also claims the photo was taken long before she was born. Naturally, since the time the photograph was taken, the face of her mother had changed since then. By comparison, the ocean on the beach where the photo was taken had altered to a lower degree. That very ocean washed the poet’s mother’s feet and her two younger cousins the day the photo was taken. The poet calls those feet “terribly transient” as all the girls in that photograph stopped being so young and since then have grown up. Their childhood did not last long.
Lines 10 – 13:
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
The poet stops looking at the photo in these lines and recalls what her mother said about the photograph. Whether it was twenty years after the photograph was taken or thirty years after it, the poet is not sure, but she recalls her mother telling her to look at how the cousins, called Betty and Dolly, looked at that young age. The mother of the poet also told her to see how her parents dressed them up for a beach trip. Maybe there was the plan to take the photo all along.
was her past, mine is her laughter. Both wry With the laboured ease of loss.
The poet claims in these lines that her mother used to see the photograph as an inroad to the past she left behind. The poet herself, on the other side, saw her mother’s memory laughing as a relic of the past that she missed every day. The memories of the past made the two females contemplating them feel disappointed in both instances as they tried hard to come up with what they had lost.
Lines 16 – 19:
Now she 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 these lines, the poet says that for the past twelve years her mother has been dead, that is, the same number of years that her mother’s age was in the photograph she had been looking at. The poet can believe in the death of her mother, but she has no words to explain how she has been influenced by death. She was also left speechless by the fact that death silenced her mother.
USE OF OXYMORON IN THE POEM ‘A PHOTOGRAPH’
An oxymoron is a figure of speech that contradicts or appears to contradict itself. Examples often given are “gigantic shrimp” or “controlled chaos.” Some are literary effects intended to produce a paradox, while others are made for humour. The poem “A Photograph” contains the oxymoron “laboured ease,” which in the context of loss may mean avoiding the public display of grief.
QUESTION AND ANSWER
1. Comment on the tone of the poem.
Ans. The tone of the poem is that of sorrow. The whole poem passes through the lament of the loss of something close and dear. Shirley Toulson looks at her mother’s old photograph and is reminded of her mother who is no longer. She recalls the time when her mother was twelve years old and looked nice and happy.
2. What is the significance of the ‘cardboard frame?’
Ans. The cardboard frame or picture shows the transience of human life. Although the sense of loss (on the death of one’s near and dear, ages ago) may never go away completely but with time one has to accept the eventuality, mortality and lack of permanence of human life. You have to come to terms with the loss of your dear departed ones, and you have to accept the inevitable. The past memories can leave you silent, dazed as the silence in the photograph. Hence, human life is ephemeral in nature and temporary and nothing can erase this naked fact.
3. What emotions does the poet’s mother have when she looks at the photograph?
Ans. The mother feels nostalgic looking at her bygone years. She laughs out loud and tells her daughter how her cousins had heavily dressed up for the beach. She recollects those days when she was innocent, youthful and playful.
4. What is silence and how has it silenced the poet?
Ans. There is nothing to say because the poet has lost her mother and her lovely smile forever. She is left without words. The poet’s mother’s death has silenced the poet.
5. ‘Each photograph is a memory.’ Justify the statement in light of the poem.
Ans. Photographs are memories for lifetime purposes that are captured and retained. “A Photograph” by Shirley Toulson captures one such time when her mother was young and she and her cousins had gone on a beach holiday. Mother and her cousins are gone these days, but even after thirty years later the photograph succeeds in bringing those memories back. The mother’s laughter as she watched the photograph became a past incident. But the photograph enables the poet, through the picture captured thirty years ago, to recall and revive the laughter. Photographs are therefore memories of bygone days.
6. What does the word ‘cardboard’ denote in the poem? Why has this word been used?
Ans. The cardboard is a very hard and stuff paper. It is a part of a photo frame that keeps the picture intact. In her poem,’ The Photograph,’ the poet has ironically used it. This cardboard helps to keep the photograph of the 12-year-old girl safely intact who herself was of a temporary nature.
7. What has the camera captured?
Ans. The camera had captured a phonograph of the three young ladies. One of them was the pretty face of the poet’s mother who was a young lady of twelve around that time. The other two were the smiling faces of the two cousins- Betty and Dolly. They hold the hands of the mother of the poet.
8. What has not changed over the years? Does this suggest something to you?
Ans. Nature has not changed over the years. It symbolizes eternity, immortality and permanence. Human life is temporary and ephemeral in nature, and nothing can erase this bare reality. In the poem, we see only the sea has not changed. The pretty faces and the feet of the three young girls have greatly changed with time.
9. The poet’s mother laughed at the snapshot. What did this laugh indicate?
Ans. The poet’s mother laughed at the photo taken years earlier. She and her two little cousins stood holding each other’s hand in the photograph. She laughed at them all because she found it so hilarious that they had dressed up heavily for the beach. They might have looked funny to her. Their laughter showed the spirit of youth.
10. What is the meaning of the line “Both wry with the laboured ease of loss”
Ans. Both the mother and the poet experienced a great feeling of loss. The mother lost the innocence of her childhood and the youthful spirit captured by the photograph a few years ago. The poet, on the other side, has lost her mother’s smile, which has become a thing of the past. She also lost her mother later.
11. What does “this circumstance” refer to?
Ans. The’ circumstance’ here relates to the death of the poet’s mother. Her deceased mother’s photograph makes the poet nostalgic and brings sad emotions from the past. But the poet has nothing to say about the circumstance because death is inescapable.
12. The three stanzas depict three different phases. What are they?
Ans. The first stanza demonstrates the mother of the poet as a woman of twelve with a beautiful smiling face. Then she paddles on a beach with her two cousins girls. All of them have a happy youthful laugh. This is before the birth of the poet. The second phase depicts the middle-aged mother laughing at her own long-recorded snapshot. The third phase portrays her mother’s death silence on the poet’s face.
STANZA – 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’ show the poet?
Ans: The’ cardboard’ displays the scene with three women on the sea beach to the poet.
b. Why did the two girl cousins hold one of the poet’s mother’s hands?
Ans: As the poet’s mother was the big girl,’ that is, the eldest of the three girls so the brothers of the two girls hold one of her hands.
c. How old was the oldest girl among the three cousins?
Ans: Among the three cousins, the oldest girl was some twelve years old.
d. How did the girls go to the sea beach?
Ans: The girls went to the sea beach ‘paddling’. It means walked barefooted in the shallow water.
STANZA – 2
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.
a. How long has the poet’s mother been dead?
Ans: The poet’s mother has been dead for about twelve years.
b. What is the meaning of the word ‘circumstance’ in the poem?
Ans: The word ‘circumstance’ in the poem means the death of the poet’s mother.
c. Why is there nothing to say at all?
Ans: The poet has lost her mother and her beautiful smile forever. Therefore there is nothing to say at all.
d. What silences the silence?
Ans: The silence of the death silences the silence.
Q. Write answers of the following questions in about 40 words each: (2 marks each)
a. Describe the three girls as they pose for the photograph?
Ans: The three girls came to the sea beach to be photographed by their uncle. The older cousins held the elder cousin’s hands. They smiled through their hair as they stood still for a photograph.
b. Why would the poet’s mother laugh at the snapshot?
Ans: The poet’s mother would laugh at the snapshot because she found it so hilarious that they had dressed up heavily for the beach. It revived her memories of bygone happy days on the sea beach and the amusing way in which they were dressed for the beach.
c. What are the losses of the poet’s mother and the poet?
Ans: The poet’s mother’s loss is of her old happy days on the sea beach while the loss of the poet is the beautiful smile of her mother as she is now dead.
d. The entire poem runs through the lament of loss of something near and dear. Which feeling is presented prominently here?
Ans: The nostalgic feeling is presented prominently in the poem.