A Photograph – Shirley Toulson

The poet is probably in her late twenties or early thirties. She is sad. With an old photograph of her mother and two of her cousin sisters, all of them still little girls, she feels at a loss. She doesn’t have any memory of her mother as the mother had died when she was too small to remember. The poem is divided into two stages – before the mother’s death and after the mother’s death.

Stage One – A new photograph

The poet is looking at an old, discolored photograph of her mother, which was taken when her mother was 12 years old or so. She had gone for a sea holiday with her cousins Betty and Dolly along accompanied by her uncle (whose uncle is not clear. Probably mother’s uncle).

After paddling the boat, they got ashore. The uncle asked them to stand together to pose for a photograph. The poet’s mother was the eldest of the three. She was very shy so each of the cousins was holding the poet’s mother’s hands. All the three of them stood smiling through their hair while the photo was taken. Probably their hair got ruffled up in the air or it was a trend among girls to let their hair hide a side of their face. Her mother had a sweet face. All these happened before the poet was born.

Stage Two – An old Cardboard

Many years passed and her mother grew up to an adult. They all underwent changes while the sea stood still. The mother died and Betty and Dolly must have aged. Here the poet presents an assumption for us – what could have happened if her mother hadn’t died? After about twenty or thirty years the poet’s mother would look at the photograph laughing nostalgically and remembering the past. She would appreciate the dress worn by her cousins Betty and Dolly. The sea holiday belonged to the past of her mother and the poet still remembers how her mother would laugh looking at the snap shot. For the poet both these bring great sadness and an acute sense of loss. Her mother died 15 to 18 years ago and now the poet has noting to say about this circumstance of the photograph.

Understanding the Poem
  • The poet looks at the cardboard on which there is a childhood photograph of her mother. She had gone for a sea holiday with two her cousins, Betty and Dolly.
  • While they were paddling, or after that, their uncle took a photograph of them. Both the cousins were holding the hands of the poet’s mother who was the eldest among the girls. This was before the poet was born.
  • Time fled past and all those who are in the photograph underwent changes while the sea remained the same.
  • Her mother would look at the photograph after about twenty to thirty years and laugh nostalgically at it.
  • Now for the poet her mother’s laughter and her sea holiday is a thing of the past. Her mother died about 12 years ago.
  • The silence of the photograph silences the poet. She experiences great loss.
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.

All three stood still to smile through their hair
At the uncle with the camera. 

Questions & Answers
  1. What does the cardboard refer to?
    The cardboard refers to the childhood photograph of the poet’s mother and her cousins who went out to the beach.
  2. Who was the big girl and how old was she?
    The big girl was the poet’s mother. She was then twelve years old.
  3. How did the cousins go paddling with the poet’s mother?
    The girl cousins, Betty and Dolly, went paddling with the poet’s mother holding her hands.
  4. Who does ‘all three’ refer to here?
    All three’ refers to the poet’s mother and her two cousins.
  5. Why did they smile through their hair?
    They smiled through their hair because they were posing for a photograph.
  6. Explain the contrast given in the last two lines of the first stanza.
    The contrast is between the sea and the human life. The sea had remained the same for all these years, but the humans have undergone changes. The poet’s mother grew up and now she had been dead for some time.
  7. What does the word ‘cardboard’ denote in the poem? Why has this word been used?
    The photograph in the poem is called cardboard because it is too difficult to call it a photograph. Having lost its colors and having lost the clarity of its images in it, the photograph is now just a cardboard.
  8. What had the camera captured?
    The camera has captured some happy moments from the childhood of the poet’s mother. It was a scene taken from a beach where she had gone with her cousins and her uncle for a sea holiday. The girls stood huddled together, the poet’s mother in the middle, held tightly by her cousins Betty and Dolly.
  9. What scene from mother’s childhood has been captured in the photograph? Who had taken the photograph?
    The scene that has been captured in the photograph is from the poet’s mother’s childhood when she went for paddling with her two cousins. The uncle had taken the photograph.
Stanza 2

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.

Questions & Answers
  1. Where was the poet’s mother when the photograph was clicked?
    The poet’s mother was on the sea shore with her cousins, posing for a photograph.
  2. When did this incident take place?
    This incident took place when the poet’s mother was twelve years old.
  3. How is the poet able to remember her mother’s childhood?
    The poet is able to remember her mother’s childhood by looking at the photograph.
  4. What has stood the passage of time and what has not?
    The sea has stood the onslaught of time. It is still the same. However, the poet’s mother and her cousins underwent changes. Her mother grew up to be an adult and now she is no more.
  5. What has not changed over the years? Does this suggest something to you?
    The sea has not changed over the years. It is still the same. The sea symbolizes immortality against the transient existence of other creatures in the nature.
Stanza 3

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.”

Questions & Answers
  1. Who would laugh at the snapshot after twenty – thirty years?
    The poet’s mother would laugh at the snapshot after twenty – thirty years.
  2. How did the mother remember her past?
    The mother remembered her past with nostalgia. Each time she looked at the photograph, she felt sad about her lost childhood and adolescence.
  3. Who were Betty and Dolly?
    Betty and Dolly were cousin sisters of the poet’s mother and they had gone with her to the beach for paddling.
  4. The poet’s mother would have laughed at the snapshot. What did this laughter indicate?
    The poet’s mother would have laughed at the photograph because she saw how strangely and how out of fashionably they had been dressed up for the holiday trip on the beach.
Stanza 4

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

Questions & Answers
  1. Who went for the sea holiday in the past?
    The poet’s mother had gone for the sea holiday in the past when she was a young girl.
  2. What does ‘both’ refer to?
    Both’ refers to the poet and her mother.
  3. How does the poet feel when she remembers her mother?
    The poet experiences great sorrow when she remembers her mother who died many years ago.
  4. Explain, “both wry with the labored ease of loss.”
    Both here refers to the mother who had died a while ago and the poet who has lost her mother. Wry is a reference to the struggles that the two women underwent to forget what they had lost. Labored ease of loss is the relief that the two women got after laboring endlessly to forget their losses.
  5. How does the poet feel when she remembers her mother’s sea holiday?
    The poet feels sad when she remembers the sea holiday of her mother.
Stanza 5

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.

Questions & Answers
  1. What does ‘this circumstance’ refer to?
    This circumstance refers to the grave, silent memories of loss that the photograph brings to the poet whenever she looks at the photograph.
  2. Why has the poet nothing to say about this circumstance?
    The poet has nothing to say about this circumstance as the memory of it brings pain to her.
  3. What impact has the photograph on the poet?
    The silence of the photograph silences the poet. She experiences the great loss of her mother.
  4. Each photograph is a memory. Justify the statement in the light of the poem, The Photograph.
    The Photograph is a memory for a number of reasons. Photographs leave behind them memories as old as the day they are captured. Once a person is photographed, for the person as well for the rest, the person lives along with the photograph. The photograph gets unprecedented/unexpected importance once the person in the photograph is no more. Since then the person or the scenery brings back painful memories rather than happy memories. However happy the person used to be, his memories make us cry. In the poem too, Shirley Toulson makes this idea very clear. In the first place, the poet uses the photograph to bring back her mother’s memories because she had lost her quite too early. The mother had been dead several years, leaving behind the poet only memories. She has no medium to remember her mother than this photograph. Although the heavy silence that the pain of losing her mother descends upon her and silences her, the poet never ceases to look at it. A photograph has a longer memory than our minds.
  5. Write a note on the use of mathematics in the poem.
    The poem presents the chronology of the poet’s life and incidents. Analyzing each line, we can conclude that the poet was a little child when her mother died. As the poet says that her mother had been dead as many years as that girl lived, it is evident that “that girl” is no one but the mother. On a deeper consideration, we can assume that the mother had died when she was hardly 22 to 25 years, more or less.
  6. Why doesn’t the poet want to think about the photograph any more?
    The poet doesn’t want to think about the photograph any more because it brings the pain of loss to her mind.
Food For Thought
  1. How many years are over after the death of her mother?
    The poet’s mother died around 24 years ago. When the photograph was taken, the mother was 12 years or so. Probably she got married at the age of 18, a reasonable age in Europe. With marriage, the girl became a woman. It is very likely that the mother died when the poet was born. It has been another twenty four years since the mother died.
Symbols of Mortality
  • Youthfulness
  • Life and age – Girlhood – adulthood – motherhood – death
  • Discolored photograph – Loss of color, fading
  • Technology – In the past photographs were printed on hard card-boards but today they are sleek, thin papers and can resist decay
  • Memories
  • Footprints
  • Dress style
  • Hairstyle – Girls used to let their hair fall on the face when they posed for photographs
Symbols of Immortality
  • The sea

What do you think?

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