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)

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