CBSE Class 11 literature -Hornbill – A Photograph by Shirley Toulson -Explanation with Q & A

A Photograph by Shirley Toulson

This is a poem of reminiscence with a rather sad tone. It brings into focus the unstoppable changes ‘time’ brings about to the lives of humans and objects.

With the passage of years, an old un-framed family photograph mounted on an ordinary cardboard has turned brownish and somewhat frayed. Unruffled by its waning gloss, the photograph hangs as a mute witness to the happy childhood days of the poet’s mother. It shows her mother, a 12-year-old girl, frolicking in the sea beach with two of her younger cousins– Betty and Dolly– at her sides. The wind blows her hair onto her face. The trio is joyful, and their happiness shows in their faces. They smile as they peer into the camera held by their uncle.
The poet, Shirley, was not born then. ‘So, the photograph must be decades old.’ the poet reasons. Her mother had a sweet face. The three girls stood in the water as it swept their little feet. No doubt, they enjoyed their time in the edge of the sea.
The poet’s mother has long departed from earth after living her full life, but the sea has hardly changed in the years gone by. This contrast is so striking.

The photograph takes Shirley down the memory lane. She recollects how her mother, now no more, used to stare at the photograph endlessly. She was clearly happy to see her face that looked so innocent and sweet those days. Some twenty to thirty years must have elapsed in the mean time. She would chuckle at the way her cousins came dressed to the beach. It was childhood innocence at its purest. But, time has no regard for such mundane matters. It rolls on inexorably destroying, building and devouring the living and the non-living objects on earth.

The mother drew pleasure from her past childhood days. Shirley remembers how her mother smiled to herself reminiscing about her visits to the sea shore. But the happy moments have all gone by, never to return, never to return. The sense of loss is painful. Shirley feels the loss as acutely as her mother did. The photograph that rekindled the memories will, over the years, succumb to the ravages of time. It will also vanish from the face of earth. Every living being will perish; every inanimate object will head to the scrap yard, and every fun-filled activity will fall silent. This is the rule of Nature.

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Questions and answers ..
Think it out ..
1. What does the word ‘cardboard’ ………… Cardboard is a cheap and ordinary material which we use to bind books, photos, and pack items. It doesn’t have a pleasing look. In this poem, the word has been used to inject a sense of sorrow and resignation. The sadness caused by the slow fading of the photograph has been accentuated by the use of the word ‘cardboard’.
2. What has the …………. The camera has captured the exuberance and the merry of the poet’s mother and her two cousins. They were young, jolly, and carefree. The photo shows this.
3. What has not ……………. The sea hasn’t changed with years. There are certain objects in Nature that would hardly be affected by the passage of time. The sea, mountains, deserts etc. defy the decaying power of time.
4. The poet’s mother laughs …………… The laugh comes from within. It reflects the happiness that comes when the mother recollects her young youthful days, and her beautiful face.
5. What is the meaning of the line …………………. The daughter and the mother reflect on the years that have rolled on, and brought about a very slow fading of the appearance. Such change is unavoidable. It is the reality. Since the change comes about so slowly, it doesn’t hurt us, but we have to accept it as a fate accompli.
6. What does ‘this circumstance’ …………… The mother has departed from the face of this world. Like this, everyone will have to go, sooner or later. This is the rule of creation. ‘The circumstance’ refers to the loneliness caused by the death of a near and dear one, and the inevitability of such loss.
7. The three stanzas ………………… The first stanza talks about the photo’s miserable plight as a witness to the passage of time.
The second stanza refers to the happy, youthful days that her mother spent with others in the family in the sea beach. The days are gone, and the two are reconciled to it.
The third stanza has philosophical undertones. It tells how the poet has been pragmatic to accept the loss of her mother, and how the void, though painful, is something one learns to live with.
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