Blog series · Poetry

A Photograph – Shirley Toulson | Poetry Analysis

This poem was suggested by Rejoy Dev @ Teenage whose blog you can check out here!

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Born on 20 May 1924, Shirley Toulson has written books on the social history of the countryside since 1974. She was a leading authority on ancient tracks and drove roads and is the author of ‘The Drovers’ Roads of Wales’ and ‘The Drovers Roads of South Wales’. She died on May 15, 2014.

“A Photograph” revolves around the universal themes of loss and separation. Even though it appears a simple poem at first, it’s complexity is evident as we go through it. There is the bitterness of loss, the memories of the past, the realization of the mortality of human life, and the inability to justify death.

Quoting Beaming Notes, “the poet articulates the void she feels upon having made uncomfortable peace with her mother’s death. The poem is tender because of the heart-touching manner in which it has expressed nostalgia born of loss to the passage of time and the final rest; the jolting attribute comes from the harsh message it sends across about how humans can never be entirely adept at accepting irreversible separation from a loved one.”

The poem begins with the poet describing a day at the beach captured in a photograph and subsequently describes three stages in the passage of time. In the first stage (stanza), the poet describes the scene in the photograph. She goes on to explain how her 12 year old mother had such a sweet face and emphasises on how the sea washed their (her mother’s and the two girl cousins’) ‘terribly transient feet.’ This is a very profound moment in the oiem as we come to realise later, as it implies the transience and mortality of human life.

The second stage is shown taking place twenty or thirty years later. The mother would laugh at the way she and her cousins were dressed up for the beach holiday. We come across a rather powerful and masterfully crafted line at the end here.

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

These lines undoubtedly convince the reader that the poet’s mother is no more. And the last lines, ‘Both wry/ With the laboured ease of loss” is just so deep and wonderfully penned. These lines mean that, the smile of the poet’s mother and the mother’s loss of childlike innocence and joyful spirit capture in the photograph with growth has all become a thing of the past. And both of them labour to bear this loss with ease.

In the third stage, the poet remembers her dead mother with a heavy heart. She portrays it exceptionally well.

And of this circumstance
There is nothing to say at all.
Its silence silences.

Poetic devices used in this poem include allusion( from Learn Cram – a reference or an incidental mention of something, either directly or by implication), alliteration, oxymoron, transferred epithet and personification.
(From Learn Cram, “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 an example of the transferred epithet in the poem. It refers to human feet but it is used to describe the lack of permanence of human life.”)

Referred Sources:
Beaming Notes
Learn Cram

That was all for this post. I hope you had a good time reading the poem and the analysis that accompanied it. I’ve often felt that poem written from one’s memories have the most profound effects on its reader, it’s so raw and authentic and heartfelt. As always, please don’t hesitate to point out any errors in the analysis.


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