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Once Upon a Time- Gabriel Okara- Poem Summary

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

Poem Introduction:

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.

Poem Summary: Once Upon a Time Poem Summary

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 their 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 his teeth. He learned to say goodbye 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 for 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.

~ Literpretation Team for Education

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