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A mom teaching her young son to walk on a dock.

A PHOTOGRAPH Critical appreciation

A poem by Shirley Toulson

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CRITICAL APPRECIATION

This poem seems to be a simple one at its surface, but it is certain that it has risen out of very complex emotions. There is the bitterness of loss, the sweet memories of the past, the realization of the brevity of human life, and the inability to justify death. The poet has had a very difficult time dealing with her mother’s death. Perhaps she had been very close to her mother. That certainly seems to be the case going by this poem. It is clear that her mother used to share her innermost thoughts with the poet. The vice versa must have been true as well. In order to cope with this great loss, the poet takes recourse to all the wonderful memories she has of her mother, as well as old photographs of her mother and her extended family. The photograph and thee memories serve her well. For just a few moments, she finds relief by looking at her mother’s sweet face. This makes her realize that life is short, and hence, we must cherish every moment we get to spend with our loved ones. She takes consolation from the fact that her mother had no great regrets about her own life. Even after all this, the poet cannot justify why her mother had to die and leave her behind. Death is an unavoidable circumstance. As soon as man is born, he is also condemned to a death sentence. We are all aware of this theoretically. Yet when we see someone close to us dying, we feel that God has been unjust to us. This is exactly what the poet feels. However, she is unable to vocalize what effect her mother’s death has had on her own. She only says that it has left her speechless.

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Family With Two Children 6 8 Holding Hands Walking Along Beach Photos and Premium High Res Pictures - Getty Images

THEME

Contrast between planned past and unknown future: In this poem, the photograph represents a planned past. The way in which the children were dressed up to go to the beach was planned by their parents. Their arrangement within the photograph itself with the tallest and oldest girl in the middle and the two shorter and younger ones at the side was also meticulously planned. The way their smiles were captured by the uncle was also planned. As opposed to this, the family had no control over the children’s future. As we read through the poem, we realize that the poet’s mother must have been between the ages of 60 and 70 when she died. Considering the average life cycle of man, this is quite a young age at which to die. There was nothing the family could do to stop this death. Perhaps the poet’s mother had been struck by some fatal disease, or perhaps she had died in an accident. In any case, there was no way that this grim future could have been predicted. The contrast between the joyful past and the scary future is therefore a wide one, and provides for much of the sadness that the poet exudes towards the end of this poem. Death leaves you speechless: The poet has been helpless to stop her mother’s death. She has simply had to accept it. She misses the sound of her mother’s voice, and her loving words as well. This silence that the death has caused in her mother is also echoed in the poet herself. She cannot talk about how her mother’s death has affected her. The silence that death brings in your loved ones also leaves you silent. Brevity of life: The poet’s mother had been twelve years old when the picture was taken. She used to talk about that picture twenty or thirty years later. That is, she used to look back to her childhood at the age of thirty-two or forty-two. Perhaps she was going through a midlife crisis. In any case, she had begun to realize that she had started aging and that sooner or later she would have to die and leave the earth behind. She had realized that life is very short, and that she should enjoy every moment as much as she had enjoyed such visits to the beach when she was a little girl. This is a realization that the poet also has. There is no way of knowing when your loved ones may suddenly leave your side. Hence, it is important to cherish every moment you have with them. This thought may also have been accompanied by the thought of her own death. The poet would also have to die one day, since no man is immortal. Before she died, she must live her life to the fullest and never let sorrow conquer her.

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TONE

The tone of this poem undergoes a great change from the beginning of the poem to its end. At first, the tone is both nostalgic and joyful as the poet looks at an old photograph of her mother in her girlhood. The spirit of nostalgia continues as she recounts how her mother would often look at the photograph and reminisce about the day when it was taken. A tone of sadness creeps in when the poet compares the unchanging sea with the brevity of human life. At the very end of the poem, she becomes silent as she cannot vocalize how sad her mother’s death has made her.

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Presentation by : ADRIJA RANJN CLASS – XIth B