Margaret Atwood

This Is a Photograph of Me by Margaret Atwood

‘This Is a Photograph of Me’ is the first poem of Margaret Atwood’s poetry collection, “The Circle Game,” published in 1964. This piece centers around a highly symbolic photograph.

Margaret Atwood’s ‘This Is a Photograph of Me’ is a feminist poem that uses the extended metaphor of a drowned woman to describe the way that women have historically been overlooked in society. The poem was included in the poet’s collection, The Circle Game, published in 1964.

This Is a Photograph of Me by Margaret Atwood


Summary

‘This Is a Photograph of Me’ by Margaret Atwood describes a blurry image of a woman who has tragically died by drowning in a lake nearby their “small frame house.” 

The poem begins with the first-person speaker describing her photograph. It has greyish flecks and blurred lines on it. The print is smeared, and it seems like the photograph was taken a long time ago. But, it is not the case. The speaker makes it clear that the photo was taken the day after she drowned in a lake near her house.

This shocking description heightens the tension of this piece. The speaker welcomes readers to look at this photograph and find her if they can.

You can read the full poem here.

Meaning

While it might seem simple at first, with a full understanding of Margaret Atwood’s writing, specifically the writing included in The Circle Game, it becomes clear there is more at work in this poem than it might’ve initially seemed. As the poem progresses, the photograph comes to represent those who have been overlooked throughout history, marginalized people (often women). Recorded history has limitations, the poet suggests. A blurry photograph (or corrupted view of history) can only be so accurate.

Structure

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.

As the poem taps on a tragic incident, it does not have a rhyme scheme or specific sound pattern. It is free verse without 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.

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.

Literary Devices

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.

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 speaker compares herself to a branch of a tree. There is a metaphor in the line, “…of the picture, just under the surface.”

In the last section, readers can find an alliteration. It is present in the phrase, “look long enough.” Here, Atwood uses the repetition of the “l” sound for creating a transient rhythm.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1–5

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.

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.

Lines 6–12

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 readers 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 tree branch.

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.

Lines 13–18

In the background there is a lake,

(…)

of the picture, just under the surface.

From this section, the description becomes clearer. At first, readers may have thought that it was an old family photograph. 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 image’s background 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. It becomes very clear that the poem is metaphorical. The situation is entirely conceived to convey a message; it is not describing a real, physical situation. The photograph is a symbol. But, what it’s a symbol of may not be entirely clear to readers yet.

Knowledge of what the poet wrote about in the rest of the collection is helpful. The Circle Game is devoted to elevating marginalized voices, those who have been overlooked in favor of male-dominated world history.

The photograph represents history itself. It is blurry, grainy, and hard to understand. It conceals the truth, represented by the body in the water. If you look hard enough, you might see the reality of society peaking through the haze.

Lines 19–26

It is difficult to say where

(…)

you will be able to see me.)

The penultimate section of the poem delves deeper into the 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, but if readers are attentive enough, they can visualize the image/the true state of the world and the lives/histories of marginalized groups.

Historical Context

‘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.

Similar Poetry

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’.

You can also read about these incredible poems on death and the best poetry of Margaret Atwood.

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About
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.
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