Margaret Atwood’s ‘This Is a Photograph of Me’ is based on a shocking story of a drowned child. It is not clear whether the child has drowned accidentally or been pushed by someone else. If readers look at the title of the poetry collection in which it appears, they can understand that the child might have drowned while she was playing nearby a lake. As the title says, this collection revolves around the children’s circle game. In reality, the poems of this collection are not written in a playful mood. Rather they depict many tensions or dualities.
Explore This Is a Photograph of Me
The poem begins with the first-person speaker (the child) describing her photograph. It has greyish flecks and blurred lines on it. The print is smeared and it seems as if the photograph was taken a long time ago. But, it is not the case. The child makes it clear that the photo was clicked the day after she drowned in a lake nearby her house. This shocking description heightens the tension of this piece. Besides, the reference to certain things clarifies the image depicted by Atwood. Lastly, the speaker welcomes readers to look at this photograph and find her if they can.
You can read the full poem here.
This poem does not have a complex meaning to decode. Superficially, it describes a photograph, appearing as an old photograph belonging to a family album. After reading the full text, it becomes clear that this photograph was taken after the child drowned. It is rather a depiction of her spirit lying deep inside the lake where her aqueous burial was done.
If readers focus on the title, ‘This Is a Photograph of Me,’ they can understand it reveals the mental state of the speaker. She specifically points at the photograph by saying this is her image. So why is this image important? As it reveals how the child’s spirit felt after she realized the ground beneath her little feet slid just within a flash of a second.
This poem can be separated into two sections according to the subject matter. The first part, describing the image of the child, contains three stanzas. While the following part, comprising four stanzas, explores the sad reality of her.
As the poem taps on a tragic incident, it does not have a rhyme scheme or specific sound pattern. It is free verse without having any rhyming lines. The use of end-stopped lines makes this piece sound like a blank verse as well.
The short lines having only a few syllables keep the pace swift but the pauses and full stops used in this piece suddenly break this flow. It is consonant with the mood of the poem.
This poem is spoken from the perspective of a first-person point-of-view. It is an example of a lyric poem. Apart from that, it does not have a specific metrical pattern. Readers can find a mixed-use of iambic-trochaic meter along with some spondee and pyrrhic feet.
The most important literary device of ‘This Is a Photograph of Me’ is enjambment. It is used to internally connect the lines. Readers can find the use of this device throughout. Apart from that, Atwood uses imagery to detail the photograph and the things present in it.
There is a use of irony in the lines, “At first it seems to be/ a smeared/ print.” The poet also uses anticipation in the quoted lines for hinting at the tragic event described in the upcoming lines.
The use of simile can be found in the line, “a thing that is like a branch: part of a tree.” In this line, the child compares herself to a branch of a tree. There is a metaphor in the line, “…of the picture, just under the surface.” It seems here the speaker is hinting at the subconscious mind and the mental picture of her.
Within its brevity, this piece explores several themes. The most important themes are death, appearance vs reality, innocence, the transience of life, and disappointment. To begin with, Atwood taps on the theme of death, not in the first few lines. It is present in the second part that explores the reality behind the photograph of the child. According to the speaker, she has died by drowning in a lake, and this image is taken after her watery-burial took place.
The contrast present in the picturization of the two sections, the poet reveals the theme of appearance vs reality. At first, the photo appears to be an old photograph. But, it depicts the image of the child after she drowned.
If readers scan the dramatic monologue of the speaker, they can find that she is spontaneous and childish. In the aside section, her style of conversing with readers appears as if she is playing hide-and-seek. In this way, Atwood presents the theme of innocence.
The last two themes are also integral parts of ‘This Is a Photograph of Me’. Through the depiction of the image, the theme of the transience of life is explored. Besides, from the tone of the speaker, readers can sense her disappointment. Her dissatisfaction hardens her mind. Still, her innocence peeps through her cold soul.
It was taken some time ago.
blended with the paper;
‘This Is a Photograph of Me’ begins with the description of a photograph of the speaker. From the preliminary description, the identity of the narrator is not clear. Just like the hazy picture, the description does not give a clear answer at all. As the poem appears in Atwood’s poetry collection “The Circle Game,” it seems the speaker can be a child.
The title of the poem acts as the first line of this piece. It helps readers to understand what the first stanza is all about. The poetic persona or the speaker points at the photograph by saying it was taken a few years ago. It has a smeared print just like one can see in an old photograph.
Besides, there are a few hazy lines on it. Some “grey flecks” are blended with the paper of it. The features create an image of a photograph that belongs to an old family album. Atwood uses the epithets such as “blurred” and “grey” to help readers imagine the appearance of the photo. After reading the next few lines, they can imagine what’s there in it.
then, as you scan
it, you see in the left-hand corner
what ought to be a gentle
slope, a small frame house.
This section is connected with the previous stanza as it reveals a few characteristics of the image. Here, Atwood’s speaker converses directly with the readers. This one-sided conversation gives this piece an outlook of a dramatic monologue.
The narrator welcomes to imagine what is there in the photograph. In the left corner, there is a thing appearing like a branch of a tree. It seems here the speaker is referring to her family tree. She is an integral part of the image, like a branch of a tree.
Whatsoever this emerging branch can be of balsam or spruce. As the image is blurry, it is hard to say what tree is there. While on the right side there is a small house.
The onlookers do not have to move their eyes all way long to the right. It appears just halfway to the right. The speaker might be a member of that house. In this hazy image, the house appears to be a gentle slope. So readers have to imagine this slope is a reflection of the house.
In the background there is a lake,
of the picture, just under the surface.
From this section, the description becomes clearer. At first, readers have thought it is an old family photograph of the child. From the previous stanza, it is clear there are none of them except a branch of a tree and a small house. In this section, Atwood depicts the background of the image showing a lake. Beyond it, there are some low hills. It can be referred to that the speaker might live in that place or somewhere nearby.
From line 15 there is a roundabout shift in the subject matter. It topples the mental image of the photograph in a reader’s mind. In this line, the speaker casually says that it was the photograph taken after her death. To be specific, it was taken the day after she drowned.
Till now, it is not clear where the speaker is in that photograph. According to her, she is in the lake. Her depiction takes the center spot just under the surface. So, the photograph was taken from outside the lake. She may be portraying her location. There is no such photograph at all?
It is difficult to say where
you will be able to see me.)
The penultimate section of the poem delves deeper into that image on which ‘This Is a Photograph of Me’ is based. According to the speaker, it is difficult to locate her precise position inside the lake. In the next line, Atwood confuses readers. Here, the speaker makes it clear that she cannot say how large or small she is. But, from the tone of her voice, it seems that she can be a child. It is also possible that the voice belongs to a mature person. The former conjecture seems more appropriate.
In the next lines, the reason for the haziness or blurry effect in that photo is stated. As the picture is taken from outside, the light reflected on the surface of water creates haziness. It makes the subject of the photo blurry. According to the speaker, this effect of light rather distorts the image. This distortion is similar to a mental image floating on a person’s subconscious mind.
The last three lines add some more information to understand what this image is all about. Atwood uses an ambiguous statement in this section. Previously, it is said that the image is not clear. Therefore nothing can be understood properly by merely looking at it. But, now she is saying if readers are attentive enough, they can visualize the image.
If we go deeper into the text once more, these lines will change the perception built on the former description. It appears as if the poet is talking about the childish self of a person. As one matures, this self starts submerging into the unseen depths of the subconscious mind.
‘This Is a Photograph of Me’ appears in Margaret Atwood’s poetry collection “The Circle Game.” It was published in 1964 and it won the Governor General’s Award in 1966. This collection explores several tensions as well as dualities such as the dualities between man and woman and perception and reality.
In this poem analyzed here, Atwood specifically centers her poetic thoughts on this theme of perception vs reality. At first glance, it seems that she is talking about an old photograph. Then delving a bit deeper, it appears as if she is pointing at someone’s dead self. So, after deeper introspection, readers discover a dark, sad, and disturbing truth. Such a scheme is used in her other works too.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly revolves around the themes present in Margaret Atwood’s ‘This Is a Photograph of Me’.
- The Drowned Children by Louise Glück – This poem describes how a group of children was drowned in a pond and frozen to death. Explore more Louise Glück poetry.
- The Art of Drowning by Billy Collins – It’s one of the best poems of Billy Collins. This piece speaks humorously about a near-death experience and how one’s life could be contained in a flash. Read more poems from Billy Collins.
- Not Waving But Drowning by Stevie Smith – In this poem, Smith describes the emotional situation of a speaker whose tribulations go unnoticed by those around her. Explore more Stevie Smith poetry.
- A Photograph by Shirley Toulson – In this beautiful poem, the speaker recalls memories of her deceased mother. Read more poems by Shirley Toulson.