Analysis of Once Upon a Time by Gabriel Okara


Gabriel Okara is a Nigerian poet born in 1921. After completing his education in English, he started life as a government official in a Broadcasting Corporation and later he became a full-time writer. This poem may reflect his own sentiments about the change of the post-colonial African society had been undergoing. As many other African writers Okara came originally from simple and sincere tribal societies and caught between the jaws of germinating Western norms in the society. He views how people have become insincere and false to survive in a more sophisticated society. This poem is an exploration of the thoughts and feelings of a person who has had to face this experience narrating that to his child.



Title: the title is a typical beginning of a fairy tale as it is related to a kid and further reveals that the speaker's wishes are a fantasy.

Theme:  how society changes, cultural shift, capitalism, real emotion vs fake expression

Tone: ironic, nostalgic

Mood: nostalgic

Narration: 1st Person, speaker is an old person whose speech is evidently earnest.

Structure: Free verse, broken up into 7 stanzas.

Main literary technique: irony


Deep –End Analysis

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.


symbol: heart/eyes (represent genuine emotions)

metaphor: ice block cold eyes (void of emotions) search behind my shadow (looking for hidden secrets)

visual imagery: laugh with their eyes

contrast: genuine emotions vs fake emotions

irony: only laugh with their teeth (laughs for the sake of laughing without any emotions)

repetition: laugh, they (emphasizes the contrast)

internal rhyme: see the alliteration and assonance which make the poem a lyrical one.


Here “they” represent the native Africans. Poet contrasts how they had been and how they have changed with the transformation of the society. He recaps how the people in his generation showed their emotions genuinely. As he shows, there had been the true happiness and innocence inside humans in the past. He views the people now laugh just to showcase a laugh that too with dark intentions inside their hearts.  When they meet a person, they search whether he is alone or someone else is behind him or try to probe into the private background of the person. The icy cold eyes and laughing only with teeth is a vivid portrayal of mistrust built among each-other in the society. 


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.


metaphor: shake hands with their hearts (genuine sharing of emotions)

symbol: left hand (intended intention/ while right hand shows the genuine and spontaneous intention) empty pocket (poor financial condition)

enjambment: (can see throughout the poem) run on line shows his stream of consciousness and continuity of the deterioration of social values.

caesura: (breaking down lines in the middle this is too visible throughout the poem) shows the pauses of the speaker, great way to show the speakers nostalgic feelings.


This peculiar gesture points to another interesting idea. It is materialism and selfishness. Now, people only think about what the other person has for them. If they don’t have what they need they feel like ignoring the person even if they were in touch in the past. they'll shake your hand; all they want to know is your financial status.



‘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.


This is another realization of the modern and Westernized society. People love to lead a life of isolation. In the past, people welcomed strangers too to their houses. However, with the changes of the society, people hated their personal life to be disturbed by guests. This stanza reveals the poet’s nostalgic feelings about this disconnection of social relationships.  


So I have learnt many things,

I have learned to wear many faces

like dresses – home face,

office face, street face, host face cock-

tail face, with all their conforming smiles

like a fixed portrait smile.


coin words: home face, office face… (invented words to deliver a certain idea) These are metaphors for different social occasions.

simile: wear many faces like dresses

symbol: portrait smile (a smile which represents a social practice rather than projecting emotions)


The poet satirizes the plastic nature of sophisticated society. He shows how the smile has been branded according to different social occasions. He confesses that he had to change himself to be conformed with the social norms in order to survive.


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 see you,’

without being glad; and to say ‘it’s been

nice talking to you,’ after being bored.


antithesis: Goodbye when I mean Good riddance (a form of contrast)

satire: uses humour in an ironical way to criticize the Western social norms


The ideas of the first stanza “smiling with teeth” and “shaking hands with heart” reappear in this stanza. But, the context is different. Previously, the speaker criticized such attitudes. Now he has shaped himself in society’s order. He smiles by showcasing his teeth and shakes hands just for the sake of it. He satirizes the fake emotions demonstrated by the society to maintain the sophisticated social decorum.


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 re-learn

how to laugh, for my laugh in the mirror

shows only my teeth like a snake’s bare fangs!


metaphor: muting things (the good values submerged by Western norms)

simile: my teeth like a snake’s bare fangs

visual imagery: teeth like snake’s bare fangs

symbol: snake (wickedness)


This stanza shows his nostalgic feeling of his past life and his dissatisfaction of pretence at present in order to survive. He views himself as a vicious portrait in front of the mirror. He requires to be genuine again, but remember he makes this confession to a child which shows this is his fantasy to live in the fairyland which is obviously not possible. 


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.


He wants to be a child again like his son and relearn the art of innocence and pure happiness. As everyone knows, a child at young age is true to their emotions when they grow in the society they have to change according to the society.

This is the reality of most of you and me in our societies, isn’t that so. Most people love to live in the past but as poem reveals, it is a fantasy, it is very hard to relive the past but to adapt to the present social atmosphere whether one likes it or not.

So, what is your views on the poem? Let’s leave a comment on your experience. Share the post if you find it useful.

Post a Comment


  1. Wow... Thank you ...
    It help me a lot

  2. "They used to laugh with their hearts
    And laugh with their eyes "
    What life experiences speaker referto in these lines?

    1. The adult person is worried about the void of genuine sharing of emotions. In his time people had no any hidden intention when laughing but in the modern world he finds that people laugh with a purpose not to show happy emotions.