About Lesson




Shirley Toulson: (20 th of May 1924 to 15 May 2014) was a Poet, journalist, and travel-writer was a highly regarded poet and an innovative writer She was greatly influenced by her father who was a writer too. She edited the works of Charles Dickens , Rudyard Kipling, John Milton and Wiilliam Shakespeare . All these works indeed made her more famous. Shirley Toulson’s ‘A Photograph’ is a tribute written in memory of her dead mother.


The poet is looking at her mother’s photograph which is indeed an old one. With it she can see how her mother looked when she was a little girl of twelve. The photo shows her on a beach with her two girl cousins who are younger than her, holding her hand. It might have been windy at that time that their hair was flying on their faces when the uncle took the photograph. All the three were smiling through their flying hair. Looking at the photograph, the poet says that her mother had a sweet face, but it was a time before the poet was born. The sea was washing their feet. The poet says that the sea has changed only a little but change has come about who’s feet it was washing.

After twenty or thirty years, the mother would take a look at the photograph. By that time, she was married and had a daughter. She would laugh a little and says “Look at Betty and Dolly, see how they have dressed for the beach”. By now, she can only remember those days. A huge change has come about her and she is no longer that small innocent girl of twelve.

After some years, the poet’s mother dies. Now the poet remembers her mother’s laughter, for her it is a thing of past. That’s why she says “the sea holiday as her past and mine is her laughter”. Because just like the mother remembers her old days, now the poet can remember her in that way only. However in course of time, the two of them learned to live with their losses. The pay of the losses had made a permanent impression in their wry faces. The poet says that her mother had been dead and now she feels herself in a situation that there is nothing to be said about but only emptiness. The silence of this situation silences her. In other words, she is left speechless.


Lines 1 – 4:

The poet describes looking through a photo album in these lines, the pages of which appear to be made of cardboard. She looks at a specific photo. It is a picture of three girls the tallest and oldest one in the middle and two younger and shorter ones at each side of her. The girl in the middle is the mother of the poet, and the poet speculates that when the picture was taken, her mother must have been about twelve years old. The other two girls are two cousins from her mother. Each of the cousins holds on to one of the hands for support from the older girl. The photo was drawn on a beach on the day when the three girls had visited there for paddling.

Lines 5 – 9:

The poet further discusses in these lines the circumstances under which her mother and her mother’s cousins were photographed. The poet claims the uncle of her mother was the one who took the photo. He had asked the three girls, and so they had, to pose for him. They had left their moist hair open and a portion of their faces were darkened by their hair. One could see that they were smiling into the camera through the hair film covering their mouths. One face in the picture, however, draws the attention of the poet to a greater extent than the other two faces. She’s focusing on the face of her mother, and she says the face was a sweet one.

The poet also claims the photo was taken long before she was born. Naturally, since the time the photograph was taken, the face of her mother had changed since then. By comparison, the ocean on the beach where the photo was taken had altered to a lower degree. That very ocean washed the poet’s mother’s feet and her two younger cousins the day the photo was taken. The poet calls those feet “terribly transient” as all the girls in that photograph stopped being so young and since then have grown up. Their childhood did not last long.

Lines 10 – 13:

The poet stops looking at the photo in these lines and recalls what her mother said about the photograph. Whether it was twenty years after the photograph was taken or thirty years after it, the poet is not sure, but she recalls her mother telling her to look at how the cousins, called Betty and Dolly, looked at that young age. The mother of the poet also told her to see how her parents dressed them up for a beach trip. Maybe there was the plan to take the photo all along.

Lines 14-15

The poet claims in these lines that her mother used to see the photograph as an inroad to the past she left behind. The poet herself, on the other side, saw her mother’s memory laughing as a relic of the past that she missed every day. The memories of the past made the two females contemplating them feel disappointed in both instances as they tried hard to come up with what they had lost.

Lines 16 – 19:

In these lines, the poet says that for the past twelve years her mother has been dead, that is, the same number of years that her mother’s age was in the photograph she had been looking at. The poet can believe in the death of her mother, but she has no words to explain how she has been influenced by death. She was also left speechless by the fact that death silenced her mother.


A photograph describes 3 stages. In the first stage, the photograph shows the poet’s mother standing at the each enjoying her holiday with her two girl cousins. She was 12 or so at that time. The second stage takes us twenty or thirty years later. The mother would laugh at the way she and her cousins Betty and Dolly were dressed up for each holidays. In the third stage, the poet remembers the mother with a heavy heart. The photograph revives a nostalgic feeling in the poet.

The poem, ‘A photograph’, contrasts the eternal state of nature and the transitory state of human beings. The poet describes a photograph that captures interesting moments of her mother’s childhood when she went for a sea holiday with her two girl cousins. The poet draws a contrast between nature, changing at a snail’s pace and the fast-changing human life.

The poet recollects how her mother laughed at the photograph and felt disappointed at the loss of her childhood joys. The sea holiday was her mother’s past at that time, while her mother’s laughter is the poet’s past now. With great difficulty and at different periods of time, both reconcile with their respective losses and the pain involved in recollecting the past. For the poet, the death of her mother brings great sadness and an acute sense of loss. The painful ‘silence’ of the situation leaves her with no words to express her grief. Thus, the ‘silence silences’ her.

The three stanzas of the poem depict three different stages of life i.e. early adolescence (girlhood).adulthood and death.


The poem, “A Photograph” is composed in blank verse. Its title is very much appropriate as it reminds the poet of her mother. A photograph is something that captures a certain moment of someone’s life. The person might change in course of time but the memories attached with the photograph are eternal. In this poem, the poet’s mother is no more but the photograph makes her memories come alive. The mother’s sweet face or her cousins heavily dressed up for the beach have all changed with time but the moment captured in the photograph still gives happiness to the poet’s mother when she views it thirty to forty years later. The poet reminisces that the sea holiday was the past of her mother and for her the laughter of her mother is past now. Both the moments of life have been permanently etched in the poet’s mind with a feeling of eternal loss. Death now has overpowered the innocence of these moments and the pleasure they treasured. The poet concludes the poem on a melancholy note with the comment that there is nothing to say or comment upon this sad event. The silences seems to silence all the other thoughts.


Alliteration – 

repetition of a consonant sound at the beginning of two or more consecutive words. The instances of alliteration in the poem are as follows :

Stood still  Through their  My mother’s  Terribly transient  Silence silences

Oxymoron – 

The coming together two opposite ideas to describe the same entity. ‘Laboured’ and ‘ ease’ are opposite words describing the same entity ‘losses’. the loss of the holiday and the laughter was easy because these things have to be accepted as a part of life. They are merely a part of the past and can not be relived, there will always be a tinge of difficulty letting them go completely. They will always be seen as loss.

Laboured ease

Transferred Epithet – 

Human life itself is temporary not the feet. When the adjective of one noun like life is transferred to another noun like feet, it is called transferred epithet. It is also due to the repetition of the ‘t’ sound (their terribly transient feet) but writing only alliteration as the poetic device will lead to loss of marks.


Terribly transient



  1. What does the word ‘cardboard’ denote in the poem? Why has this word been used?
  2. Explain the contrast given in the last two lines of the first verse.
  3. What has the camera captured?
  4. The poet’s mother laughed at the snapshot. What did this laugh indicate?
  5. “washed their terribly transient feet” Explain the line. What poetic device was used in this line?
  6. Explain the line ” the sea holiday as a past, mine is her laughter , Time spares none”
  7. What is the meaning of the line “Both wry with the laboured ease of loss”?
  8. What does “this circumstance” refer to?
  9. Why does the poet feel nostalgic?
  10. The three stanzas depict three different phases. What are they?
  11. “Its silence silences.” Explain.
  12. ‘Each photograph is a memory.’ Justify the statement in the light of the poem.


  1. Ans: The cardboard represents the permanence of inanimate objects in contrast to human life. The cardboard had been used to frame the picture around the same time it was taken. However, the cardboard stood the test of time while the people in the picture no longer lived on the earth. The word ‘cardboard’ denotes the permanence of inanimate objects and has been used to contrast the short life of humans.
  2. Ans:
  3. Ans: The camera has captured the scene from their childhood beach holiday where the mother of the poet holds the hands of her two cousins Betty and Dolly while their hairs blew wildly in the breeze.
  4. Ans: The poet’s mother laughed at their attire in the photograph. This laugh was not comedic, it was rather wistful. She was deeply missing her childhood, and even if she laughed at her dress, she wanted to go back in time and wear that very dress and paddle in the sea with her cousins. Their laughter indicated the youthful spirit.
  5. Ans: This context signifies the transient life of human beings whereas on the other hand the nature is immortal and eternal. While humans change due to their growth and ultimately die, the objects of nature like sea, ocean etc. never change. By this poetess means that only Nature is permanent. Human life is bound to mortality. Poetess has given a sharp comparison between the mortal and immortal. The sea symbolizes eternity whereas ‘terribly transient ‘ signifies humans’ non-permanence.
  6. Ans: Gone are the childhood days of mother and the sea holiday has become her past, the photograph flashes back to the scene that was captured about 30 years ago. Gone is a carefree laughter of the mother which was love at one time. But now, the laughter of her mother has eventually become a thing of past for the poet. She has silently resigned herself to the fate.
  7. Ans: Loss strikes like a snake, suddenly and unexpectedly, and with great impact. It can be encountered with great ease, but it cannot be accepted that easily. It takes years, if not a lifetime, to mourn and move on. The poet’s mother used to laugh wryly at the photograph for she missed her childhood. The poet too laughed at the photograph, thinking of what her mother used to say, but her laughter was draped with the sorrow of her mother’s death. They were both wry with the laboured ease of loss.
  8. Ans: The ‘circumstance’ here refers to the death of the poet’s mother. The photograph of her dead mother makes the poet nostalgic and brings sad feelings from the past. But the poet has nothing to say at all about the circumstance because death is inevitable.
  9. Ans: The poet sees an old photograph of her mother in which she was standing on the beach with her two cousins — Dolly and Betty. They were enjoying themselves. The photograph captured her mother’s sweet and smiling face. At that time, she was around twelve years old. The poet remembers how her mother used to laugh whenever she looked at that old photograph. But time has passed and now the poet has been left only with the memories of her mother. Thus, she feels nostalgic
  10. Ans: The first stanza shows the poet’s mother as a twelve year old girl with a pretty smiling face. Then she is paddling with her two girl cousins on a beach. They all have a happy youthful laughter. This is before the poet was born. The second stanza describes the middle-aged mother laughing at her own snapshot that was taken a long time back. The third stanza describes the silence on the poet’s face at the death of her mother. In consideration of life we can say that the three stanzas of the poem depict childhood, adulthood and death of a human being.
  11. Ans: The poet’s mother is filled with sentimental nostalgia when she looked at the photograph. The laughter of the poet’s mother has been silenced in the poem by death. Death silences everything that is alive. The heaviness of the emotions involving loss, pain and death choke the voice of the poet.
  12. Ans: Photographs are memories that are captured and kept for lifetime purposes. Shirley Toulson’s “A Photograph” captures one such moment when her mother was young and she went on a beach holiday with her cousins. Gone are these days of the mother and her cousins but the photograph manages to bring back those memories even after thirty years later. The laughter of the mother while seeing the photograph has become a past incident. But the photograph allows the poet to recall and revive the laughter through the image captured thirty years back. Therefore, photographs are indeed memories.
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