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CSEC English B: Once Upon a Time by Gabriel Okara Analysis

Updated: Jun 7, 2021



Once Upon a Time

Gabriel Okara

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.





Summary

In this poem, the persona, a father (or mother) seems to be speaking to his son about how people, as well as he himself have changed from showing genuine emotion to being insincere and ingenuine. The persona reminisces about times gone when people would "laugh with their eyes" and "shake hands with their hearts." He disdainfully remarks about the disingenuous pretences people put on now of feigned laughs and heartless handshakes whilst they search him for information about his financial status. The persona also speaks about his own adaptation to this new insincere world by saying nice things and acting amiably in contrast to what he really feels. However, he expresses to his son as well how much he misses people being genuine, and being sincere himself- as he finds himself unable to really laugh. He wants to be young and able to show his true feelings again like his son.

The theme of the poem is societal changes, hypocrisy and values. The mood is one of disdain and nostalgia.

The tone of this poem could be considered to be ironic, since not only does the father act the exact way he despises, but his dream dream of turning the clock back to a time of sincerity is nothing more than a fantasy as well.


Analysis

Stanza 1

"Once upon a time, son, they used to laugh with their hearts and laugh with their eyes"

The first stanza opens with the titular phrase of 'once upon a time,' showing that there is a sort of story about to be told. The father begins to speak about 'they,' the people who used to laugh genuinely, and show their true emotions.


"But now they only laugh with their teeth, while their ice-block-cold eyes search behind my shadow."

These lines show how these people no longer laugh genuinely, but rather do it for show while they inspect the persona closely- hoping to find secrets and flaws of some sort. He describes their eyes using a metaphor- "ice-block-cold eyes"- to show how callous and unfeeling they truly are.


Stanza 2

"There was a time indeed- they used to shake hands with their hearts: but that’s gone, son."

Once again, the persona recalls (nostalgically) time when people would shake hands 'with their hearts,' or with love- but states disdainfully that that time has passed.


"Now they shake hands without hearts while their left hands search my empty pockets."

The people shake hands callously, without any intention of showing trust and interpersonal warmth. Instead, they want to find out how much money he has, his financial status; as is exemplified in western capitalist values. This draws parallel with what was said at the end of the previous stanza: "....their ice-block-cold eyes search behind my shadow." They only aim to find or gain something, therefore losing the sincerity of the gesture or action.


Stanza 3

"‘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 connects again to what was previously said about the people inspecting and evaluating the persona and putting genuineness and sincerity to the wayside in favour of a newer culture where financial and social status is paramount. In this stanza, the persona is invited to their houses and told gladly after each time to feel at home and come again. However, once they see that his social or financial status doesn't quite measure up, he is excluded without a second thought.


Stanza 4

"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."

The father has learned from this new culture of cold, unfeeling people, and now cycles through faces for different occasions. Each one has a fixed smile whose aim is to please those around and conform to other people.


Stanza 5

"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."

The persona again expresses what he has adapted to do over the years: to do things not because he means them or they come from his heart, but rather for show in hopes of gaining something.


Stanza 6

"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!"

The father wants to be like his son again. Despite having learnt all of these tricks and hollow expressions to conform to the changes in society, he wants to be able to embrace the innocence and sincerity he once had as a child. These disingenuous things he has learnt have only served to mute him ('these muting things') and silence his true thoughts and emotions. He has adapted to this cold culture so much that when he sees his laugh in the mirror, his teeth are the only things laughing- so he seems deceitful and mendacious like a snake.


Stanza 7

"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."

The persona now pleads (pointlessly, one might argue) to his son to teach him how to laugh and smile genuinely again. He wants to be innocent and sincere like he was when he was younger, and lived in a society that encouraged honesty and a pure identity.


Literary Devices

Simile

"I have learned to wear many faces like dresses" (lines 20-21)

The 'faces' of the persona are compared to dresses, in that he cycles through them based on where he is. He simply switches between the personality/face he puts on to conform to where he goes.


"...with all their conforming smiles like a fixed portrait smile." (lines 23-24)

The persona's several faces have smiles compared here to a fixed portrait smile. The smile a person puts on in a photograph or portrait of themselves is often not representative of the normal state of being of the person, and is also often uncomfortable and an exaggerated pretence of happiness- similar to the pretence the persona performs here with his several smiling faces.


"my laugh in the mirror shows only my teeth like a snake’s bare fangs!" (lines 38-39)

The father's teeth are compared to a snake's fangs because of the connotation of a snake- deception and deceitfulness. The father no longer shows sincerity when he laughs, and so his teeth are deceptive as they don't reflect his true feelings. He himeslf becomes something like a snake through this deception.


Metaphor

"while their ice-block-cold eyes" (line 5)

The eyes of the people are compared to ice-blocks in how cold and unwelcoming they are. It emphasizes how callous and unfeeling the people have become.


Repetition

"Once upon a time..." (lines 1 and 43)


Enjambment

This is when a line runs on to a new line without a stop or pause.

"And I have learned too

to laugh with only my teeth

and shake hands without my heart." (lines 25-27)


"they used to laugh with their hearts

and laugh with their eyes:" (lines 2-3)


(There are many more examples in the poem)


Alliteration

"shake hands without hearts" (line 8)

"...after being bored." (line 32)

"But believe me, son." (line 33)


Additional Reading





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