Poem “A Photograph” Poetic Devices Class 11 English Poems

Poetic devices are important tools used by poets to enhance the emotional impact, imagery, and meaning of their work. “A Photograph” poem by Sirley Toulson uses poetic devices very effectively to leave great impact on the readers. The major poetic devices used in the poem “A Photograph” are explained below.

Poetic Devices Used in “A Photograph”

Poem “A Photograph”

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.

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.

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

The poem “A Photograph” by Shirley Toulson uses several poetic devices to convey the themes of transience, memory, and loss. Some of the poetic devices used in the poem are as follows:

1. Imagery: The poet uses vivid and descriptive language to create visual images to create the scene such as “the two girl cousins went paddling,” “smile through their hair,” and “the sea, which appears to have changed less, washed their terribly transient feet.” These descriptions help the readers to visualize the photograph and create a sense of nostalgia. creates a clear and vivid picture in the reader’s mind. The girls’ feet being washed by the sea, also serves to emphasize the transience and fleeting nature of life as “terribly transient feet,” emphasizes the fleeting nature of the moment captured in the photograph.

Overall, the cardboard, the sea, the smiling faces, and the transient feet are all images that evoke a sense of nostalgia and fleeting beauty.

2. Symbolism: The photograph itself becomes a symbol of memory and loss, representing a moment frozen in time that can never be recaptured.

3. Metaphor: The poet uses a metaphor to describe the passage of time. She writes, “And the sea, which appears to have changed less.” The sea is used as a metaphor for time, suggesting that while everything else changes, time remains constant and unchanging.

The sea is described as having “changed less” over the years, highlighting the contrast between the transience of human life and the enduring or unchanging nature of the natural world.

Also, the line “the sea, which appears to have changed less” uses the sea as a metaphor for the unchanging nature of memories. The poet compares the sea to the memories, which may not change over time, unlike the physical world.

Actually, the poem uses metaphor to compare the changes in the sea over time to the changes in the lives of the people in the photograph. The sea is described as having “changed less” than the people, highlighting the idea that the passage of time brings inevitable change.

Also, the phrase “laboured ease of loss” is a metaphor that suggests the effort required to come to terms with the passing of time and the inevitability of change.

4. Personification: The poem uses personification to give human qualities to silence in the last line of the poem, “Its silence silences.” The silence surrounding the circumstances of the mother’s death is described as “silencing.” The poet personifies silence by suggesting that it can silence even the memories and emotions associated with the past. This creates a sense of finality and emphasizes the depth of the speaker’s emotions and sense of loss.

The sea is also personified in the poem, as it is described as washing the girls’ feet. This personification adds a sense of movement and life to the natural world.

The sea is also personified as having changed less, implying that the sea is a constant, while everything else is subject to change.

5. Alliteration: The repetition of consonant sounds in the poem creates a musical quality that enhances the rhythm and tone. For instance,

  • “stood still to smile,” – repetition of ‘s’ sound
  • “laboured ease of loss.” – repetition of ‘l’ sound
  • ‘terribly transient feet’ – repetition of the ‘t’ sound
  • ‘silence surrounds us’ – sound of s has been repeated

6. Irony: The tone of the poem is wry and ironic, highlighting the contrast between the joy and innocence captured in the photograph and the sadness and loss that have followed in its wake.

The poet has used irony to convey the theme of loss with bittersweet memories. The line “the sea holiday was her past, mine is her laughter” is an example of irony because the poet’s present is her mother’s past. The mother laughs at the snapshot of her younger self and her cousins, but her laughter is tinged with sadness and loss. The laughter of the mother, which once brought joy to the poet, is now a reminder of her mother’s absence.

The irony in the poem creates a contrast between the past and the present. The speaker’s mother’s laughter in the past is juxtaposed with the speaker’s present sense of loss, creating a sense of poignant irony.

The speaker acknowledges this irony when she describes both her past and her mother’s as “wry with the laboured ease of loss.”

7. Allusion: The poem alludes to the passing of time and the inevitability of death, as the line “And of this circumstance, there is nothing to say at all” is an allusion to the inevitability of death. The poet uses this line to convey the finality of death and the silence that surrounds it. This allusion creates a sense of melancholy and reflection as the speaker notes that her mother has been dead for nearly as many years as the girl in the photograph lived.

8. Transferred epithet: It is used in the line “Washed their terribly transient feet.” ‘Terribly transient feet’ here actually means that Human life itself is temporary not the feet. When the adjective for one noun like life is transferred to another noun like feet, it is called transferred epithet. 

In this line, the adjective “terribly” is transferred from the feet, which are not inherently capable of being “terrible,” to the transience of the moment being described. The feet are actually quite ordinary, but the fleeting nature of the moment is what makes it “terrible” or awe-inspiring.

9. Enjambment: The poem uses enjambment, where a sentence or phrase runs over into the next line without punctuation, creating a sense of continuity and fluidity. This technique is used throughout the poem, for instance, in the lines “All three stood still to smile through their hair/ At the uncle with the camera.”

10. Repetition: The poem uses repetition to create a sense of rhythm and emphasis. The phrase “and look how they” is repeated twice, emphasizing the mother’s laughter and the passage of time.

11. Oxymoron: The oxymoron device used in the phrase “laboured ease.” The phrase combines two contradictory terms (labour and ease), suggesting that while laughter may seem effortless, it is also strained and forced due to the weight of loss and grief. ‘Laboured’ and ‘easy’ are opposite words describing the same entity ‘loss’.

Overall, these poetic devices work together to create a melancholic tone and convey the theme of the passage of time, loss, the inevitability of death, and to capture the bittersweet nostalgia that accompanies memories of the past.

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