A Photograph Summary
by Shirley Toulson

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Summary and Analysis

“A Photograph,” a poem by the English writer Shirley Toulson, describes the adult speaker’s discovery of a photograph showing her mother, at that time a girl, and some even younger cousins swimming during a holiday at the sea. At the time the picture was taken, the speaker’s mother was “the big girl,” roughly twelve years old (4), and the picture shows her holding the hands of the two younger girls as they swim. The photo shows all three girls smiling for the camera, and the speaker fondly recalls how her mother, in her thirties or forties, later looked at the picture and laughed at the way she and her cousins were dressed. Now the speaker, looking at the picture herself, ponders the fact that her mother has been dead for roughly twelve years—about as long as the young girl in the picture had at that point lived.

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Clearly one theme of Toulson’s poem is mutability, or change. The picture records a time in the distant past; the speaker recalls a time in the more recent past; and then the speaker finally comments on the present, when her mother has been dead for roughly twelve years. The poem is thus a meditation on the passing of time and also on the fact of loss, especially the mother’s loss of her youth and the speaker’s loss of her mother. Yet the poem can also be seen as a response to, and minor victory over, such loss. Just as the photograph records the past so that the past still, in some sense, exists, so the poem itself records both the photograph and the responses to it of the speaker’s mother and of the speaker herself. The poem itself functions as a kind of photograph, preserving the past so that it never completely disappears.

The fact that the photograph is surrounded by (or pasted onto) a piece of mere “cardboard” (1) already suggests the idea of fragility. The photograph is not surrounded by a sturdy metal frame, nor is it (apparently) preserved under protective glass. Instead, the photo is in some ways as vulnerable to change as the people it pictures have proven to be. In the photo, the mother, then a twelve-year-old girl, serves as a source of security and reassurance to her younger cousins. Ironically, of course, the mother herself is now dead; although she protected her cousins when she was herself just a girl, nothing has been able to protect her from the inevitable fact of death. The poem, in a sense, emphasizes the inexorable fate of most human beings—the way most of us move from early strength to ultimate vulnerability and death. The poem, then, is not merely a meditation on the speaker’s mother but also on aging, growing weakness, and finally death—processes experienced by practically everyone (except those who die in very early youth).

(The entire section is 930 words.)