Updated: Apr 1
Once Upon a Time by Gabriel Okara reflects changes made in social behaviors and culture along with loss of innocence. The speaker is the poet (represents the old generation) he speaks to his son; a child (represents the young generation). He expresses how people were once, how they are now, how he also changed his nature in order to survive and how he wishes to get back to his old him.
Once upon a time, son,
they used to laugh with their hearts
and laugh with their eyes:
but now they only laugh with their teeth,
while their ice-block-cold eyes
search behind my shadow.
There was a time indeed
they used to shake hands with their hearts:
but that’s gone, son.
Now they shake hands without hearts
while their left hands search my empty pockets.
‘Feel at home!’ ‘Come again’:
they say, and when I come
again and feel
at home, once, twice,
there will be no thrice-
for then I find doors shut on me.
So I have learned many things, son.
I have learned to wear many faces
like dresses – homeface,
officeface, streetface, hostface,
cocktailface, with all their conforming smiles
like a fixed portrait smile.
And I have learned too
to laugh with only my teeth
and shake hands without my heart.
I have also learned to say,’Goodbye’,
when I mean ‘Good-riddance’:
to say ‘Glad to meet you’,
without being glad; and to say ‘It’s been
nice talking to you’, after being bored.
But believe me, son.
I want to be what I used to be
when I was like you. I want t
o unlearn all these muting things.
Most of all, I want to relearn
how to laugh, for my laugh in the mirror
shows only my teeth like a snake’s bare fangs!
So show me, son,
how to laugh; show me how
I used to laugh and smile
once upon a time when I was like you.
In the first two stanzas, the poet says to his son how they i.e. himself and people, used to be. They used to laugh out loud through their hearts and eyes with joyful tears but nowadays they use teeth to laugh along with their tears-less cold eyes searching all through his shadow to violate his privacy. People used to shake hands with love and nowadays they shake to investigate his pockets. ‘Feel at home!’ ‘Come again’ were once the welcoming and bye biding phrases but nowadays there is only a twice and no thrice. People shut doors at him if he tries to feel at home more than twice.
In the third and fourth stanzas, he tells his son about the lessons he learned from modern society. He says he learned to wear a variety of masks in public according to the occasion like home-face, office-face, host-face, cocktail-face, etc. all with a portrait-perfect smile. He says he has also learned to laugh like them through teeth. He learned to say good-bye even if it is a good-riddance in the heart. He learned to shake hands without love and to say glad-to-meet-you even if he did not feel glad. Also, he learned to say it’s-nice-talking-to-you though it is boring.
In the last two stanzas, the poet records his regret and wishes to his son. He asks his son to believe that he wishes to get back to what he was once. He wishes to unlearn everything that he has grown to be because he regrets being this, ‘a fake person’. He also wishes to laugh out loud as if his teeth appear like snake fangs and smile through his heart to enjoy with pleasure like he used to do once upon a time. Finally, he begs his son to teach him to be innocent like was back then as a child.