A Photograph Poem Stanza Wise & Line by Line Explanation

Stanza wise explanation of the poem “A Photograph” by Sirley Toulson published in the class XI English Core textbook “Hornbill: The poem effectively invokes the connection between memories and associated emotions in the absence of the subject. Stanza wise explanation of the poem “A Photograph” would help in comprehending the poem and its essence.

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Stanza Wise Explanation of “A Photograph”

Stanza 1

The cardboard shows me how it was
When the two girl cousins went paddling
Each one holding one of my mother’s hands,
And she the big girl – some twelve years or so.
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.

Word Meanings:

Important words and phrases from the stanza are:

  • Cardboard: The material on which the photograph is printed or mounted.
  • Girl cousins: Two female cousins who are pictured in the photograph.
  • Paddling: The act of walking or playing in shallow water, such as at a beach.
  • Mother: The mother of the poet, who is not yet born in the photograph.
  • Big girl: Refers to the poet’s mother, who is older than the two girl cousins.
  • Twelve years or so: Approximate age of the poet’s mother at the time the photograph was taken.
  • Smile through their hair: The girls are pictured smiling while their hair blows in the wind.
  • Uncle with the camera: The person taking the photograph.
  • Sweet face: The poet describes her mother’s face as sweet.
  • Before I was born: Indicates that the photograph was taken before the poet’s birth.
  • Sea: The body of water visible in the background of the photograph.
  • Transient feet: The girls’ feet are only momentarily in the water as they play at the beach.
  • Washed: The action of the sea water coming up and washing over the girls’ feet.
  • Terribly: The word “terribly” here suggests that the moment is fleeting, and perhaps even bittersweet or poignant.
  • Appears to have changed less: The sea looks much the same in the photograph as it does at present, emphasizing its enduring nature.

Explanation (Stanza-1)

In this stanza of the poem “A Photograph” by Shirley Toulson, the speaker is looking at an old photograph that shows a scene from the past. The photograph is printed on cardboard, which serves as a tangible reminder of the memory captured in the image.

The scene depicted in the photograph shows the speaker’s two girl cousins paddling in the sea, each holding one of the speaker’s mother’s hands. The speaker’s mother is described as the “big girl,” suggesting that she is older and more mature than the two cousins.

The three of them are standing still, smiling and looking at the camera held by their uncle. The image of them smiling through their hair suggests a carefree and happy moment frozen in time.

The speaker’s mother’s face is described as “sweet,” conveying a sense of innocence and youthfulness. The stanza ends with the speaker noting that this photograph was taken before she was born.

Finally, the sea in the background is described as having “changed less” over time than the people in the photograph. This emphasizes the idea that memories and moments captured in photographs are transient, while the natural world around us endures. The image of the sea washing their feet emphasizes the impermanence of the moment, and the inevitability of change and the passage of time.

Stanza 2

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.

Word meanings:

  • Snapshot: A photograph taken quickly and informally, usually with a small camera.
  • Betty and Dolly: Presumably, friends or relatives of the speaker’s mother who are also in the photograph.
  • Dressed us for the beach: Refers to how the speaker’s mother and her friends were dressed for a trip to the beach, which is the subject of the photograph.
  • Sea holiday: A vacation spent at the seaside.
  • Wry: Suggests a sense of ironic humor or bitterness.
  • Labored ease of loss: Implies that the speaker and her mother are both experiencing a sense of sadness or nostalgia for the past, but are trying to make light of it through humor or by acting as if it doesn’t affect them too much.

Explanation (Stanza -2)

In the second stanza of the poem “A Photograph,” Shirley Toulson is reflecting on her mother’s possible reaction to the old snapshot taken many years ago when she was a young girl. The poet’s mother, who is no longer alive, is looking back at the image with a mixture of amusement and nostalgia.

The stanza suggests that around twenty to thirty years after the photo was taken, the poet’s mother would laugh at the snapshot, pointing out her cousins Betty and Dolly and the unusual outfits they wore to the beach that day. The poet’s mother’s reminiscence of the past is now part of the poet’s own memory and heritage.

However, the last line, “Both wry / With the laboured ease of loss,” hints at the bittersweet nature of the memory. The smile Shirley Toulson’s mother had on her face when she thought of her past (the sea holiday) and Shirley’s thoughts when she recalls her mother’s laughter, both, seem to be wry i.e., filled with dry or sad amusement for a time that was happier but cannot be re-lived.

Although the laughter is joyful, there is also a sense of sadness and pain at the memory of a loved one who is no longer with them. The phrase “laboured ease of loss” suggests that the memory brings comfort, but it is not without effort or strain to recollect it.

Overall, this stanza highlights the theme of nostalgia and the importance of memories, as well as the idea that even happy memories can be tinged with a sense of sadness or wistfulness when viewed from a distance. The poet’s mother’s laughter and the poet’s own reflections on the photograph both suggest that it is possible to find joy and meaning in the past, even as we grapple with the losses that time brings.

Stanza – 3

Now she’s has been dead nearly as many years
As that girl lived. And of this circumstance
There is nothing to say at all,
Its silence silences.

Word Meanings:

The third stanza of the poem “A Photograph” by Shirley Toulson reflects on the passing of time and the inevitability of death. Here are the meanings of some of the important words and phrases in this stanza:

  • “Now she’s been dead nearly as many years / As that girl lived”: The speaker is referring to her mother, who is the big girl in the photograph. She is saying that her mother has now been dead for almost as many years as she had lived when the photograph was taken. This emphasizes the passage of time and the fact that the people in the photograph are now gone.
  • “And of this circumstance / There is nothing to say at all”: The speaker is acknowledging the finality of death and the fact that there is nothing that can be said or done to change it. This phrase emphasizes the sense of loss and the feeling of helplessness that comes with the passing of a loved one.
  • “Its silence silences”: This phrase is a play on words that emphasizes the power of silence. The silence surrounding the death of the speaker’s mother is so profound that it seems to silence everything else as well. This emphasizes the emotional impact of the loss and the fact that it has affected every aspect of the speaker’s life.


In the third stanza of “A Photograph,” the poet reflects on her mother’s passing and the silence that accompanies it. The stanza begins by stating that her mother has been dead for nearly as many years as the girl in the photograph had lived, which suggests that the poet’s mother died relatively young.

The poet then acknowledges the stark reality that there is nothing to say about her mother’s death. The silence that follows this statement emphasizes the finality of death and the inability to express the depth of grief that comes with losing a loved one.

The use of the word “silences” as a verb in the last line of the stanza is significant. It implies that the silence that surrounds her mother’s death is not only a lack of sound, but also an active force that dominates the poet’s life. The word suggests that the poet is still grappling with the loss of her mother and that the silence is a constant reminder of the absence of her presence.

Overall, this stanza portrays the poet’s deep sense of loss and the difficulty of expressing that loss in words. It highlights the profound impact that the absence of a loved one can have on one’s life and the weight of silence that can accompany that absence.


The three stanzas portray distinct phases: the first one illustrates the poet’s mother’s childhood, the second her own childhood with her mother as an adult, and the last one her adulthood without her mother. The poet draws a comparison between the permanent nature of the natural world and the fleeting, temporary nature of human life. To emphasize the brevity of her mother’s life, the poet employs a transferred epithet, describing her mother’s feet as “terribly transient.”

Essence, Message and Summary of the Poem “A Photograph”

The poem “A Photograph” by Shirley Toulson is a poignant reflection on the fleeting nature of life and the powerful memories that are captured in a photograph. The first stanza describes a photograph of Toulson’s mother and her two cousins, taken many years ago when they were all young girls. The image depicts the three of them standing on a beach, holding hands, and smiling at the camera.

The second stanza reflects on how Toulson’s mother would later view the same photograph with a sense of nostalgia and amusement. She would laugh at the way they were dressed and the memories of the sea holiday that was captured in the image. Toulson realizes that for her, the photograph is a connection to her mother’s past, and the laughter in the image represents a bittersweet acceptance of the inevitability of loss.

In the final stanza, Toulson acknowledges that her mother has been dead for many years, and the photograph is now a silent reminder of the past. The image captures a moment in time that is gone forever, and the silence of the photograph reflects the deep sense of loss that Toulson feels. The poem is a beautiful tribute to the power of memory and the way that photographs can help us hold onto the people and moments that we cherish, even as they slip away into the past.

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