Analysis of Symbolism in Gabriel Okara's "Once Upon a Time"

Updated on March 21, 2018
Mountain range in Nigeria, the birthplace of Gabriel Okara.
Mountain range in Nigeria, the birthplace of Gabriel Okara. | Source

Once Upon a Time (Full Text)

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
to 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.

Analysis

The heart is a symbol of genuine emotions, and the eyes the conveyor of the same (as sincere feelings are communicated through the eyes). Once upon a time people used to smile and shake hands with their hearts. Though they were rooted in primitivism, the emotions they embodied were genuine. Now, in the contemporary post-colonial context, the smile is purely plastic as it reveals only the teeth. The eyes are devoid of emotion and phrased as 'ice-block.' They appear without the slightest trace of warmth and humanity. They search behind the speakers shadows, as their intentions and motives are not explicit. They are now characterized by ulterior motives. There was a time when their very greeting (shaking of hands) was heart-felt. The ‘right hand’ here is the metaphor for the projected intention. The left hand for the ‘intended intention.’ The left hand gropes in the empty pockets of the speaker.

Niceties like “Feel at home!' and 'Come again' are reiterated just for the sake of formalities. However, when the speaker makes an appearance for the third time, there is certainly a marked change in their behavior. Leave alone the thought of a warm reception, the doors are closed on him. The speaker has now learned to conform to this sophisticated world driven by calculation and manipulation. He talks of many faces that are nothing but metaphors of masks and disguises designed to suit specific needs and situations:

I have learned to wear many faces
like dresses - homeface,
officeface, streetface, hostface,
cocktailface, with all their conforming smiles
like a fixed portrait smile.

The portrait smile is a symbolic act of something that is not felt, but done purely for the sake of it. Conforming to the so-called refined culture the poet has attuned himself with the rest and learnt to smile only with his teeth and greet (shake hands) without any trace of sincerity (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.

'Goodbye' is an expression that originated from the blessing 'God be with ye.' It’s meaning has deteriorated to 'Good-riddance'. In the pseudo-modern fast-forward life people have lost the power to connect as human beings and communicate in naturalness. The poet tells his son that he wishes to transcend into the innocence of childhood characterized by purity where the soul is closer to God, as Wordsworth claimed in his Intimations Ode. He wants to unlearn all the muting things of sophistication. Particularly, he wants relearn to smile as now the poison is becoming more obvious with the fangs showing. The showing of the fangs emblematizes how the people were transforming from their seeming disguise to shameless display of iniquity. The symbol of the snake also points to the first sin of Man.

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.

Towards the end of the poem, the speaker entreats with the son to teach him to emote. The poem, therefore exemplifies that 'Child is the Father of Man.'

Once Upon a Time (Audio)

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)