The speaker opens the poem by noting that its subject is fairly old. The reader understands that the speaker is discussing a photograph, given the poem’s title and the verb “taken.” Still, by not explicitly naming the photograph or specifying just how old it is, the speaker introduces vagueness—a quality that will pervade the poem. Indeed, the speaker proceeds to describe the photograph as “smeared,” or smudged and blurry.
The passive verb form “taken” also indicates that some unnamed third party took the photograph, rather than the speaker. To put it another way, this phrasing presents the speaker as a commentator rather than an active force behind the photo’s production. This term will reappear later (see stanza 4) to clarify that the speaker is the object of actions carried out by a more dominant force. However, line 1 also establishes the speaker’s authority, as it is made up of one succinct, straightforward sentence, punctuated with an end-stop. As such, the speaker comes across as confident, while the poem's plain, reserved language projects credibility.
The speaker then points out the image’s apparent blurriness. These lines contain assonant long /e/ sounds, which emphasizes a few important characteristics of the photo:
At first it seems to be
Assonance calls attention to the image's smudgy appearance, while the verb “seems” signals that there is more to the image than initially meets the eye. Moreover, the words that contain assonant vowels receive additional stress due to the poem's meter:
At first it seems to be
Plus, consonant /m/ and sibilant /s/ sounds create a sonic bond between “seems” and “smeared,” reinforcing their relationship, i.e. the photograph seems smeared. In fact, sibilance appears throughout this passage, as do consonant /t/ sounds. The contrast between the gentle hiss of words like “seems” and the harsh, percussive nature of words like “at,” “it,” and “to” foreshadows the dark reality lurking beneath the image’s fuzzy surface.
The enjambments that occur after lines 2 and 3 ("At first it seemed to be / a smeared / print ...") create suspense as the audience waits to learn what the photograph pictures. Furthermore, the caesura that bisects line 4 ("print: blurred ...") spotlights “print,” which indicates that the speaker is referencing a physical object. This word choice also plays up the image’s production—the human hand that developed the photograph and might be responsible for its smudginess. Finally, the colon that brings this passage to a close suggests that the remarks to come will explain or expand on this account of the picture.