Summary of a Photograph - Poem

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Central Idea of the Poem

Shirley Toulson’s poem ‘A Photograph’ is a loving tribute to her mother. The poem reflects the passage of time and its three stages. In the first stage, the photograph shows his mother enjoying a holiday on a beach along with her two girl cousins. She was 12 at the time. The second stage transports us to twenty or thirty years later. This stage shows the mother laughing at her picture and the way she and her cousins were dressed in the picture at a beach. In the third stage, the poet sadly remembers the dead mother with his broken heart. The photograph revives nostalgic waves in the poet.


  • The cardboard shows me how it was

  • When the two girl cousins went paddling,

  • Each one holding one of my mother’s hands,

  • And the big girl — some twelve years or so.”

A tattered picture of the poet’s mother and her cousins on a beach was pasted on a piece of cardboard. The photo reflected the happy memories of his mother’s childhood vacation, where she was along with her younger cousins. Holding his mother’s hands the two younger cousins walked on the shallow water of the sea. They walked barefoot enjoying the water. The poet’s mother was twelve years old in the picture.

This stanza shows that although the picture was old, still the poet kept it close to his heart. He wanted to save his mother’s childhood memories as it made him happy too.

The photograph also indicates how enjoyable her mother’s childhood was.

“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 photograph shows that all three girls enjoying themselves. The poet’s mother and her two cousins posed for the camera by standing still when their uncle clicked their photograph at the sea beach. As the weather was too windy at that time, their hair went flying over their happy faces. The expression on the faces of the poet’s mother and her cousins was that of happiness and joy. The mother was looking very pretty at that time and the photograph was taken a long time ago.

All those beautiful and happy memories were just memories now, his mother was dead and the poet missed her a lot. The only thing that remained unchanged is the sea which was washing down their feet. The mention of the word ‘transient’ reflects on the ever-changing lives of human beings as well as how short our lives are on this universe in contrast to the eternal life of nature which remains. The girls’ life changed drastically during this period but the sea has not changed. The stanza beautifully explains the transient nature of human beings.

“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

Was her past, mine is her laughter. Both wry

With the laboured ease of loss.

Even 20-30 years later the mother would look at the photograph and laugh nostalgically remembering the happy memories of her past. Mother would look at the photograph and comment on the dresses worn by the cousin’s Dolly, Betty, and herself.

The Sea holiday was her mother’s past and her mother’s laughter has become a thing of the past for the poet as her mother was now dead. The poet still remembered how her mother would laugh at the photograph remembering the sea-holiday with a fondness as well as a sense of loss because that time would never come back. In the same way, the poet feels nostalgic thinking about her mother and her laughter which has become a thing of the past.

‘Laboured’ and ‘Ease’ can be called antonyms of each other but both of these words describe the same entity, loss.

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.”

Explanation: The poet recalls that it has been nearly twelve years since her mother had died. The poet is consumed with grief but is left with no words to express her loss and pain. The poet is totally absorbed in memories of her dead mother. The painful silence of this situation leaves the poet speechless. The poet can feel the grief but is unable to express it through words. The silence caused by death makes the atmosphere gloomy, where no one is able to utter words.

This poem is a tribute to the poet’s mother by visiting happy memories of her childhood through a photograph.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. Why is a Piece of Cardboard Important for the Poet?

Ans. The piece of cardboard is so special to the poet because it has an old photograph of his mother pasted to it. That picture is of her mother’s childhood vacation, where she stood with her two younger cousins alongside. This picture made the poet remind of the ephemeral nature of the time as her mother is no more with her.

2. What did port want to convey here:

And the sea, which appears to have changed less,

Washed their terribly transient feet.”

Ans. Poet wanted to explain the transient or ever-changing nature of human life in this world. He explains how the sea which washed their feet remained the same but her mother was no more alive. Nature remains unchanged and humans live a short life compared to nature.