‘A Photograph’ by Shirley Toulson

Dear Class XI

Summary of the main points in Shirley Toulson’s The Photograph:

The photograph belongs to the poet’s mother’s childhood, and so, is really her mother’s memory of her lost childhood (not the poet’s as she wasn’t born then). Toulson was born on 20 May, 1924. So, her mother’s childhood would be during the late Victorian or early Edwardian era (early 1900’s). This is the remote past when the photo was clicked, some twenty or thirty years before they first looked at it together.

The cardboard on which the photo is mounted, dates it as belonging to the black-and-white photography. If you wish to interpret it as a symbol, then ‘cardboard’ could imply a futile attempt to capture the fleeting moment and frame it for permanence.  Maybe, the photo looked a bit like this:


In the photograph, the poet’s mother was a young girl of twelve and her cousins, Betty and Dolly, much younger, each holding on to the oldest girl’s hand on either side of her. The poet does not mention her mother’s name, but in real life, it was Marjorie Brown.

Next, we come to another time in the past, when the poet first looked at the photo with her mother and they both laughed over it. The mother laughed at the quaint old-fashioned bathing costumes and the poet joined her. But it wasn’t a lighthearted mood. The poet calls it ‘wry’ i.e. disappointed or mocking laughter. The poet’s mother misses her lost, carefree childhood while the poet sees a young, sweet-faced girl-mother who lived 20-30 years ago and whom she can never meet and befriend. The young, smiling girl in the photograph will never come back. Maybe her mother was already sick and dying (42 or 52 is not all that old) and did not laugh much. The poet missed her laughter, which belonged to the past.

Look at the photograph above – these people now, are probably dead or very old. The sea is still there, still unchanged. Nature’s uncaring eternity is juxtaposed with mankind’s vulnerable mortality. Those feet that paddled have moved away, in space as well as time! Those terribly transient (mortal) feet have carried the mother away to old age and death.

The phrase “laboured ease of loss” contains an oxymoron or a combination of opposites, as “laboured” means difficult or painful, while “ease” means comfortable or easy. Loss is difficult to bear at first, but time helps you to cope with loss – cope with the pain of your lost childhood or the pain of seeing your mother with no laughter, maybe ill and dying. So, you gradually accept your loss and learn to live with it. There is still a void, but not as painful as it first seemed.

Now, at last, we come to the present, when the poet looks at the same photograph, many years after her mother’s death, and composes this poem. Death is the ultimate loss, to which the terrible transient feet carry the mother. No living person can comment on what happens afterwards. So, there is absolute silence. The universe offers the poet no consolation, comfort, or hope; just blank silence. Maybe, the poet is old and approaching her own death – so she anticipates the silence of the end. The absolute silence of death, silences the poet, and the poem ends there.


Remember our learning objectives:

  1. You should understand the poem and form your own opinion of it
  2. You should be able to answer questions on it

I advised you to apply the SQ3R method as follows:

  • Survey: Glance at the poem’s title, author’s name, and skim through the questions set at the end of your unit.
  • Question: Read the poem and note down any questions that occur to you on its probable meaning.
  • Read: Read the poem intensively and write down answers to your questions (and textual questions).
  • Revise/Review: Re-read the poem, checking your answers to make sure they are accurate.
  • Recall: See whether you can recall the answers to all the questions without referring to the text.

Interesting points:

Your teachers shared their feelings about the mother-daughter relationship which is intense, unique, love-hate and umbilical – starting before birth and (for the poet) seeming to extend beyond it.

A Photograph is a poem about this relationship, about coping with the loss of a beloved mother, about the awareness of mortality and transience of life, love and laughter.

I would also refer you to the fragment of a quotation from Oscar Wilde: All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.  

The above quote is obviously, ironical, not to be taken literally.


Sanjukta Sivakumar

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