S Shirley Toulson

A Photograph by Shirley Toulson

‘A Photograph’ is a powerful poem about loss, memory, and time. Despite the fact that it focuses on one speaker’s mother and a very specific photograph, it is incredibly moving and relatable. Everyone has experienced loss of some kind and in the lines of this poem, Toulson taps into what that loss feels like when one looks back on it years later. One of the most interesting elements of this poem is the way that the photograph features. It is a source of nostalgia for the mother, but also for the daughter when she looks at it, thinks of her mother as a young girl, and then thinks about looking at the same photograph with her mother. 

A Photograph by Shirley Toulson


Summary of A Photograph

‘A Photograph’ by Shirley Toulson is a beautiful poem in which a speaker recalls memories of her deceased mother.

In the first part of ‘A Photograph,’ the speaker describes looking at a photograph of her mother as a child. Through this, she is able to get across her feelings about time and how quickly it moves. Somethings, like the sea, stay the same while her mother did not. The second part of the poem takes the scene into the speaker’s own life when she was looking at the same photo with her mother. She recalls the sound of her mother’s laugh and how she hasn’t heard it for twelve years. 

You can read the full poem here.


Themes in A Photograph 

Toulson explores several important themes in ‘A Photograph’. The most prominent are loss/mourning and memories. The entire poem is centered around the speaker’s recollections from her own life and her recollections of her mother’s memories. She feels both sorrow and joy as she recalls her mother’s words when the two looked at the photograph together. So much time has passed since the image was taken, and since she looked at it with her mother. But, it’s clear from the poem that the memories of those moments are still strong in her mind.


Structure and Form

‘A Photograph’ by Shirley Toulson is a nineteen line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. The lines are written in free verse, meaning that they do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, that being said, it does not mean that the poem is entirely without rhyme or meter. There are several examples of half-rhyme scattered throughout the poem that help to give it the feeling of rhyme without forcing the poet to conform to a specific patter. For example, “sea” and “feet” in lines eight and nine as well as the “l” consonant sound in “laboured,” “loss,” and “lived” near the end of the poem. 


Literary Devices 

Toulson makes use of several literary devices in ‘A Photograph’. These include but are not limited to caesura, alliteration, and imagery. The first of these can be seen several times in the text when the poet breaks lines with punctuation. For example, line four reads: “And she the big girl – some twelve years or so” or line ten: “She’d laugh at the snapshot. “See Betty’’’. 

Alliteration is another formal device that focuses on the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “stood still to smile” in the fifth line and “laboured” and “loss” in line fifteen. 

Imagery is one of the most important techniques at work in any poem. Without successful crafting images, poems are unable to connect with the reader’s imagination. The best images encourage the reader to use a variety of senses in order to imagine them. A good example can be seen in lines eight and nine. They read: “And the sea, which appears to have changed less / Washed their terribly transient feet.


Analysis of A Photograph 

Lines 1-9 

The cardboard shows me how it was

When the two girl cousins went paddling


Washed their terribly transient feet. 

In the first lines of ‘A Photograph,’ the speaker begins by using the word “cardboard” to refer to a photograph. Unlike the photographs of today, in the pre-digital era, photos were printed on thick photo paper similar to cardboard. This photograph reminds her of a time when “two girl cousins went paddling”. In the photo, she sees them hoping hands with her mother who at that time was only twelve years old. This photograph was taken long before the speaker was born but it is still capable of bringing back feelings of nostalgia for her. 

There is an interesting moment in line eight when the speaker refers to the sea at their feet. It “appears to have changed less,” she says. This is in reference to the immense changes that came over the young women in the image. They grew up, at least one had children and has since died. In order to drive this point home, the speaker then adds that the girls have “terrible transient feet”. Besides being a great example of alliteration, this line also reminds the reader how time and change never stop progressing. 


Lines 10-19 

Some twenty- thirty- years later

She’d laugh at the snapshot. “See Betty


There is nothing to say at all, 

Its silence silences. 

In the next lines of ‘A Photograph,’ the speaker takes the reader into her lifetime when “twenty-thirty-years later” (suggesting that she doesn’t quite know how long ago it was) her mother laughed with her at the photograph. She speaks about the “girl cousins,” “Betty” and “Dolly”. This was a tender memory in her mother’s past and the speaker compares it to an important one of her own—her mother’s laugh. This is the first concrete evidence that the reader has that the mother has passed away. 

In the last lines, the speaker reveals that it has in fact been twelve years since her mother died. Her memories of her have shifted somewhat in that period but she still gets emotional when she spends this time thinking about her. The poem concludes with the speaker saying that there is “nothing to say at all” about the loss or the period since. This suggests that she doesn’t quite have the words to describe it or that there really are no words to adequately convey the ravages of time. 


Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘A Photograph’ should also consider digging deeper into poetry that focuses on themes of loss and memory. One of the best poems about loss is When Great Trees Fall’ by Maya Angelou. In this piece, Angelou depicts loss as an inevitable part of the human experience and is able to identify with all those who have felt loss at some point in their lives. Some other powerful poems include ‘Death is Nothing at All’ by Henry Scott Holland, ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ by Dylan Thomas, and The Death Bed’ by Siegfried Sassoon. Also, make sure to check out our list of 10 Incredible Poems about Death.

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Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
  • Michael Alpert says:

    This is a fine, serious poem that explains itself. It does not need, or benefit from, commentary. You do not cite where you found this poem or if you have permission to reproduce it. So I assume that you have, to use a polite term, lifted it without permission. Also, you say not a word about the poet. Nothing. Shirley Toulson deserves better treatment.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      As a poet, I would relish the idea of somebody analysing my work. There is that quote about poetry being about what the reader brings to it and I think most poets would be intrigued to see how others engage and interpret it. A poem being analysed doesn’t cheapen it! I agree that it is nice when there is a biography attached to an analysis (and for most of our articles that is the case) However, as I didn’t write the article I cannot comment as to why that wasn’t the case here. Perhaps they were struggling to fit everything into their word count. As for “lifting” the poem. We have a couple of quotes to it!

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