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The poem A Photograph is written by Shirley Toulson in the memory of her dead mother. In the poem, the poet sees a photograph of her mother and goes into reminiscence.
She remembers when her mother used to tell her about that photograph and would miss her youth. In the end, the poet feels sad because of the loss of her mother. So, there the poem is pessimistic and deals with the theme of loss.
In order to understand, I have divided the poem into four parts.
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 says that she happens to look at an old photograph of her mother which has a cardboard frame. In the photo there are three people, two of them are cousins of the poet and the third one is her mother. They had gone for paddling (swimming). In the photo both cousins have held poet mother’s hands . Poet calls her mother as big girl. who was approximately twelve years old then.
Now, in the this stanza, we find symbols and images. The first image is cardboard. In old times, the photos were framed in cardboards. With time, the cardboard also gets old and thus it symbolises past time. Next, the girl cousins are holding the hands of poet’s mother which depicts motherly nature towards them.
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.
According to the poet, all three (the poet’s mother and her two cousins) were standing still to smile through their hair. The phrase “smiling through their hair” symbolizes their joy on the beach. They were smiling so wildly that even their hair was waving in the air.
They were all looking at the uncle who was holding a camera to take their picture. The poet is mesmerized by the sweet face of her young mother during the time when she (poet) was not born. In other words, the poet says that her mother was beautiful during her youth.
In the next line, the poet says that the sea which has not changed over the years was washing their transient (short-lived) feet terribly. This line is symbolic. The poet is comparing the sea with her mother. According to her, the sea has remained as is throughout the years. However, her mother grew old and changed a lot.
The word “transient feet” is acting as transferred epithet and refers to humans who grow old quickly and finally die. The word “terribly” refers to the strong waves which were flowing over the feet of her mother and cousins. Till here, the first period of time has been described i.e. the youth of her mother
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
In this stanza, the poet thinks of a later time i.e. around 20-30 years after the photo was taken and when her mother grew old. The poet and her mother were looking at the same photo.
While seeing the photo, poet’s mother laughs and asks her daughter (the poet) to see how Betty and Dolly (poet’s cousins) and how they all were dressed for beach. Again this movement (with her mother) is a past memory for the poet.
Now the poet comes to the present time. According to her, the sea holiday was the sweet memory of her mother while her (mother’s) laughter (described above) is poet’s memory because she (her mother) is no more. In other words, like her mother was thinking of her youth joys while seeing the photo, the poet thinks of her mother while seeing the same photo.
According to the poet, both she and her mother were wry with the labored ease of loss. In other words, both laugh while memorizing something which they enjoyed a lot and both have lost. Laboured ease of loss refers to our acceptance of loss after great sorrow and living with it.
“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.”
According to the poet, her mother is dead for as many years as her mother’s age in the photo i.e. 12 years. And now, she is so sorrowful over the loss (of her mother) that she cannot express it. After seeing the photo and remembering all those events and joy, there is absolute silence on the face of the poet because of grief.