Summary of a Photograph – Poem

Have you ever encountered the question what is the poem a photograph about? This article contains all you need to know about the poem.

Literary devices are important in determining how a poem should be read. These tools are critical for a poem to convey the message that the poet wishes to convey by creating visual images and elements that feel personal. We will learn about such devices through Shirley Toulson‘s poem A Photograph.


About the Poet

Shirley Toulson is a writer from the United States. She was born on May 20, 1924, in Henley-on-Thames, England, and received her B.A. in Literature from Brockenhurst College in London.

The Drovers, A Celebration of Celtic Christian Saints, Sites, and Festivals More is one of her most well-known works.

The Poem’s Central Idea

‘A Photograph,’ a poem by Shirley Toulson, is a loving tribute to her mother. The poem reflects time’s passage and its three stages. In the first stage, the photograph depicts his mother relaxing on a beach with her two female cousins. She was 12 years old at the time.

The second stage transports us twenty or thirty years into the future. This stage depicts the mother laughing at her photograph and the manner in which she and her cousins were dressed in the photograph taken on a beach.

With a broken heart, the poet remembers his dead mother in the third stage. The photograph stirs up nostalgic feelings in the poet.

Summary of the Poem

On a piece of cardboard was pasted a tattered photograph of the poet’s mother and cousins on a beach. The photo reminded him of his mother’s childhood vacation, where she was with her younger cousins. The two younger cousins walked on the sea’s shallow water while holding his mother’s hands. They walked barefoot, taking in the scenery. In the photograph, the poet’s mother was twelve years old.

This stanza demonstrates that, despite the fact that the picture was old, the poet kept it close to his heart. He wanted to preserve his mother’s childhood memories because they made him happy.

The photograph also shows how much fun 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 photo shows all three girls having a good time. When their uncle snapped a photo of the poet’s mother and two cousins on the beach, they posed for the camera by standing still. Because it was too windy at the time, their hair flew all over their happy faces.

The poet’s mother and cousins had happy and joyful expressions on their faces. The mother was very attractive at the time, and the photograph was taken a long time ago.

All those beautiful and happy memories were now just memories; his mother was no longer alive, and the poet missed her terribly. The only thing that had not changed was the sea that was washing over their feet.

The word ‘transient’ refers to human beings’ ever-changing lives as well as how brief our lives are on this planet in comparison to nature’s eternal life that remains. The girls’ lives changed dramatically during this time, but the sea did not. The stanza beautifully describes the fleeting 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 after 20-30 years, the mother would look at the photograph and laugh nostalgically, recalling happy memories from her childhood. Mother would look at the photograph and comment on the dresses worn by Dolly, Betty, and herself, as well as the cousins.

Her mother’s laughter had become a thing of the past for the poet because her mother was now dead. The poet remembered her mother laughing at the photograph, remembering the sea holiday with fondness and a sense of loss because that time would never return.

Similarly, the poet feels nostalgic when she recalls her mother’s laughter, which has since faded. Although the words ‘laboured’ and ‘ease’ are antonyms, they both 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.”

The poet’s mother has been dead almost as long as the girl in the photograph. The poet is at a loss for words to express her grief over her mother’s death. It’s a solemn occasion, and the silence has left her speechless. As a result, the poet honors her mother. The old photograph is what brings her to a halt.


It has been nearly twelve years since her mother died, according to the poet. The poet is overcome with grief, but she lacks the words to express her loss and pain. The poet is completely absorbed in her memories of her late mother. The poet is rendered speechless by the agonizing silence of the situation.

The poet feels the loss but is unable to express it in words. Death’s silence creates a gloomy atmosphere in which no one is able to speak.

This poem pays tribute to the poet’s mother by revisiting happy childhood memories through a photograph.

Literary Devices in a Photograph 

Alliteration is the use of a consonant sound at the beginning of two or more words in a row. The poem contains the following examples of alliteration:


An oxymoron is a literary device that combines two opposing ideas to produce an effect. The phrase ‘laboured ease’ is an oxymoron in the poem. ‘Laboured’ means ‘difficulty,’ while ‘ease’ means ‘comfortably.’ Although they are used interchangeably here, both words have opposing connotations.

A good example of personification is ‘it’s quiet silences.’ The scenario exudes a human quality of silence.

An epithet is a term that conveys a characteristic of a person or object.

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