Once Upon A Time – Critical Analysis

Once Upon A Time – Critical Analysis | Gabriel Okara

Once Upon A Time – Critical AnalysisGabriel Okara, a Nigerian poet and novelist, has been considered as one of the leading literary figures in literary arena. Gabriel Okara’s poem, “Once Upon a Time” is a simple lyric which has been composed in subjective vein. It is written in in the form a dialogue between a father and his son. The poem is an example of free verse which has no specific rhyme-scheme.

Once Upon A Time – Critical Analysis

The poem “Once Upon a Time” deals with the theme of disintegration and disharmony in society with the growth of materialism, capitalism, and modernity. It also hints at the poet’s attempts to evolve a form of English that would have the structural principles of his own indigenous ‘Ijaw’ language within it. The poem also implies the oral tradition of ‘Ijaw’ language.

Gabriel Okara tried to decolonize language before the end of the colonial rule. He thought that African point of view needed to be translated almost literally from their African language. He produced collection of poetry such as, “The Fisherman’s Invocation” published in 1978, and “”The Dreamer, His Vision” in 2005 are balanced between Africa and Europe.


The poem “Once Upon a Time” is a dialogue between a father and his son which the father laments over the loss of love and cordiality in society. The father tells his son about the change of attitude of people with modernity and material progress. In the poem, the speaker compares his presents with the past. The father pines for his lost simplicity, happiness, and love which he finds absent. He wants to regain his childlike happiness and simplicity and get rid of all burdens and affectations. He wants to be a child again. The poem begins with complain of a father as follows:

“Once upon a time, son,

They used to laugh with their heart

And laugh with their eyes;

But now they only laugh with their teeth,

While their ice-block-cold eyes

Search behind my shadow.”

In “Once Upon a Time”, Gabriel Okara has elucidated an experience of a father in society. The father says that time has brought immense change in the attitude of people. There was a time when people used to be friendly and being intimate with each other. They used to enjoy company of their friends and neighbours. They used to greet people or guests with love and affection.

But in the present time, they put on masks of love and friendliness with false smiles on their faces. They have no love and affection for each other. Relationship has only become a matter of profit and loss for people. The poet has artistically employed the words:

While their ice-block-cold eyes

Search behind my shadow.”

The lines vividly suggest a communication among people and lack of cordiality and affection. The metaphorical expression, ‘ice-block-cold eyes’ implies lack of warmth in relationship; and the words, “Search behind my shadows” clearly suggest that people always have some hidden motive or purpose in relationships.

The poet suggests that people do not want to laugh from the core of their hearts; they have lost their innocence and simplicity with the passage of time and become narrow-minded and reserved. They only pretend to be happy and friendly with others but in reality there is no love and happiness.

Once Upon A Time – Critical Analysis

The second stanza describes the experience of the father and the lessons he learnt in modern 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.”

The father further tells his son that people used to be very glad on meeting each other in the past. They would greet and welcome the visitor from the core of their hearts; there was love and affection in their relationship. They would welcome the guest with a hand-shake. But now time has changed. People only welcome other when they feel that their relationship will be profitable for them in future. They have become insensitive and they greet people only when they get material profit out of their relationship.

The third stanza describes the conversation between the father and a host of a house.

“’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.”

People welcome the father only once; or twice but when he again pays a visit to them he finds no love and affection; on the contrary, he finds their doors shut on his face.

In the fourth stanza, the father states that he has learnt from people how to lead his life in the modern times.

“So I have learned many things, son.

I have earned to wear my faces

like dresses – homeface,

officeface, streetface, hostface,

cocktailface, with their conforming smiles

like a fixed portrait smile.”

The father has learnt how to put on mask of love and affection as one puts on different dresses on different occasions. He has learnt to treat people in a different manner at different times. He puts on a garb of intimacy and love for his near and dear ones but actually he feels no love for them. He puts on an impression of love and affection and his smiles have become lifeless like a smile of a portrait painting.  He has learnt how to deceive people by putting on masks of love and intimacy to people when he feels nothing for them in reality.

The poet has employed words such as, ‘homeface’, ‘hostface’, ‘officeface’, streetface’, and concktailface’ in order to highlight the hypocrisy and pretentious behavoiur of people in modern days. The fourth stanza clearly indicates the poet’s fine use of oral tradition of ‘Ijaw’ language in English.

The poet has adroitly employed a figure of speech ‘simile’ in the lines in order to imply a communication gap in society.

“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 taking to you after being bored.” 

The Father has also learnt to smile in an artificial manner when he meets people and greet them with false expression of love with a hand-shake. The meaning of certain terms has also changed for the father. When he says ‘Glad to meet you’; it means that he is not happy at all to meet the person. For the father, the meaning of a an expression ‘Goodbye’ has also changed, it means that he is happy to get rid of such a boring company of the visitor.

But in the concluding lines of the poem the poet says that he wants to be a child again he wants to be what he used to be.

“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 teeth like snake’s bare fangs!”

The father in the last stanza expresses his wish to be a child again and acquire his lost purity, happiness, and innocence. He wants to forget all those things which he has learnt. He wishes to learn all the simple things of his childhood which he has lost in the journey of his life. He wants to derive pleasure in simple things of life; and laugh just like a child. He likes to regain his lost innocence.

So, the father asks his son to teach him how to derive pleasure and smile like him. The Poet has adroitly epmloyed ‘similes’ in order to imply his state of mind, for example: “for my laugh in the mirror shows only teeth like snake’s bare-fangs”.

Conclusion: Once Upon A Time – Critical Analysis

Gabriel Okara’s poem, “Once Upon A Time’ throws light on the evils of modernity and materialism in society in which man has lost his purity, innocence and happiness. With the progress in science and industry, man has lost his simplicity, and innocence. His life has become a ‘lifeless’ portrait which feels nothing. With material prosperity and development man has become selfish and narrow-minded. There is sense of alienation in the society; and everyone feels lonely and alienated. Man has lost his real identity.

 Read it also: Critical Analysis of An Epitaph by W.H. Davies

1 thought on “Once Upon A Time – Critical Analysis”

Leave a Comment