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Analysis of Poem 'Once Upon a Time' by Gabriel Okara

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Gabriel Okara

Gabriel Okara

Gabriel Okara and a Summary of 'Once Upon a Time'

'Once Upon a Time' is a free verse poem that focuses on a father's attitude to cultural change and times past, before the incoming Western culture affected the native African way of life.

In the poem, the man (presumably a father) addresses the son, telling him in a rather nostalgic manner, how things used to be. People were different back then, more genuine it seemed, and that is what the speaker would like to do now—return to a restored world—if he can only learn from the youngster.

Back then, people weren't after your money, they could look you in the eye and smile real smiles. But nowadays, although the smiling teeth are on show, and they'll shake your hand, all they want to know is your financial status.

And so the poem progresses, the early stanzas revealing more of the negative changes that have occurred during the father's lifetime. He is old enough to have watched decent human standards drop to the wayside as western ideals (together with capitalism) gradually took over.

The speaker wants to relearn from the as-yet-untainted son how to laugh and be genuine again. It's rather a pathetic plea, coming from the adult to the youngster—for what can the son realistically do? Can the clocks be put back? Can an ancient culture be retrieved from the overwhelming modern culture?

The themes are: how society changes, cultural shift, capitalism and values.

Perhaps the tone is ironic. Perhaps the speaker knows deep inside that he'll never regain that purity, that he won't be able to turn back time and relive life as a transformed person. That's why the title could be from a fairy tale; the speaker's wishes are a fantasy.

Gabriel Okara (1921–2019) is considered to be one of the first modern African poets. Born in Nigeria, he uses folklore, religion, myth and social issues to explore tradition and transition. His work first appeared in the magazine Black Orpheus from 1957. This poem is included in his book The Fisherman's Invocation, published in 1978.

'Once Upon a Time' by Gabriel Okara


Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of 'Once Upon a Time'

'Once Upon a Time' is a free verse poem of 43 lines, broken up into 7 stanzas.

First Stanza

The first line suggests that this poem is going to be based on a story—a kind of fairytale?

The speaker is addressing his son, so this could well be a father beginning to explain how things used to be, how people 'they' used to laugh with their hearts and eyes. Back in the past.

In contrast, nowadays laughter is more of a show of teeth, and the eyes are cold and looking for something other than the real person.

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So already the present is being judged by the past. And from what we can gather from these first six lines, the speaker prefers the attitudes of the people from the past. There is the feeling that negative change is here.

Second Stanza

The art of shaking hands has also changed. In the past, a greeting was genuine, a person welcomed for who they were. But nowadays people shake hands with one eye on your status, your financial status.

People are no longer genuinely warm towards others. People are on the make, wanting to get something from you.

Third Stanza

People invite you round to their homes making out as if you're important to them, but if you don't measure up socially or your status isn't quite right, you're not invited again.

The alienation continues. People nowadays are artificial and fickle because of the change in culture.

Fourth Stanza

The first three stanzas outline the speaker's perception of changing culture and attitudes and values in his country.

This fourth stanza describes how the speaker himself had to change and learn in order to comply. He uses a comparison—faces to dresses—to highlight the various personas he took on, all the while smiling.

The repeated use of face affixed to various places and situations is highly visual.

Fifth Stanza

He also has become adept at the heartless handshake and hollow toothy smile, plus he knows how to deceive people with his farewells and welcomes and false politeness.

Basically, he is saying that he has become an integral part of this new culture. It's been quite an education for him.

Sixth Stanza

But he is not happy being a conformist. He wants to regain a former innocence the youngster still holds. He wants no part of this new culture and all these muting things. That word muting means to deaden in this context.

What he wants most is to be able to laugh in innocence again—he likens himself to a snake, his teeth hold something toxic, even dangerous.

Seventh Stanza

He comes clean. He wants the son to show him how to regain this lost innocence and true identity. How to laugh and smile like in the old days when he was young and carefree and the culture encouraged openness and honesty.

Literary/Poetic Devices


When two or more words close together in a line begin with the same consonant, creating different sound textures:

hands without hearts . . . these muting things . . . So show me, son, . . . when I was


When two or more words are close together in a line and have similar sounding vowels, again creating different sounds:

upon a time, son . . . like a fixed portrait smile . . . was like you. I want . . .


A break in a line where the reader pauses, usually through punctuation:

'Feel at home! Come again.'

they say, and when I come


When a line runs on into the next with no stop or pause, maintaining the sense. For example, the first two lines of this stanza:

And I have learned too

to laugh with only my teeth

and shake hands without my heart.


When something is compared to a different thing, using the words like or as. For example:

I have learned to wear many faces/like dresses -

with all their conforming smiles/like a fixed portrait smile.

like a snake's bare fangs.

What Is the Tone of 'Once Upon a Time'?

The tone of 'Once Upon a Time' is nostalgic and perhaps a little ironic. The speaker dearly wishes to relearn how to smile a genuine smile again, how to laugh without pretension—but will he really be able to learn from the youngster?

The speaker is earnest, he clearly wants to get back to a time he perceives as pure and innocent and good . . . in the old African culture, before the Western values crept in and took over.


© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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