In the poem "A Photograph" by Shirley Toulson, the phrase "transient feet" appears in the last line of the first stanza:

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.

What is the figure of speech in "transient feet"? On the net, I find various answers like metaphor, allusion, transferred epithet & synecdoche and so on. I am rather unclear about it.

2 Answers 2


There are a few ways to read this phrase:

  1. The feet are transient because the girls did not stay on the beach for long: the holiday came to an end and they went home and back to school. (This is the simplest reading, but it’s unsatisfying because it doesn’t explain why the transience is “terrible”.)

  2. The feet are transient because one of the girls in the photograph (the speaker’s mother) died: “Now she’s been dead nearly as many years / As that girl lived.”

  3. The feet are transient because life is short and death is certain.

The rhetorical device in all three cases is synecdoche: a part (the feet) representing the whole (the three girls in the photograph; or the mother’s life; or existence in general, depending on which reading you prefer).

  • So, it is certainly not 'transferred epithet', isn't it? Jun 25, 2021 at 16:08
  • I don't see it myself. The argument for "transient" being a transferred epithet would have to be something like, "it's not the feet that are transient, but the people they belong to", but I don't think this argument works, because if the people are transient then so are their feet. Jun 25, 2021 at 16:30
  • Exactly, that is what my conviction is. Thanks a lot. In my country, it is in the syllabus of class XI but all the materials have only 'transferred epithet' as answer and I do not find the valid reason for it there. Thank you once again for confirming it. Jun 26, 2021 at 11:57

The figure of speech "transient feet" works at two levels in the poem: the level of the narrative trigged by the photograph and the level of the "slice of life" captured in the photograph. On both levels, the figure of speech is synecdoche, but there are two types at work.

  1. At the level of the narrative, "transient feet" is an example of a pars pro toto, i.e. a part (the feet) standing for the whole (the bodies or the persons, one of whom has died). A pars pro toto is one specific type of synecdoche.
  2. At the level of the slice of life seen on the photograph, the feet stand for the footprints they leave on the beach; it is these footprints that are transient because they are washed away by the sea. This is a different type of synecdoche, namely one in which the cause (the feet) is substituted for an effect (the footprints). The transient nature of the footprints is indirectly suggested by the contrast with the sea, "which appears to have changed less". Substituting a cause for an effect is a type of synecdoche that is less frequently mentioned in literature textbooks (just like substituting an effect for a cause).

(There is actually a third way in which the feet may be transient, namely through the photograph becoming faded in some places, particularly at the lower edge where the feet might have been. This fading may be related to the photograph being printed on cardboard. However, this is rather speculative.)

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