Once upon a time, Summary and poem (line by line explanation )

Once upon a time, Summary and poem (line by line explanation )

once upon a time

About the Author

The poem “Once Upon a Time” was written by Gabriel Okara. He is a Nigerian poet and novelist. He was born on 24th April 1921 In Nigeria. He is one of the first modern African poets. He used folklore, religion, myth, and social issues to explore tradition and transition.

The poem “Once Upon A Time” is included in his book “The Fisherman’s Invocation” published in 1978.

He died on the 25th of March 2019 in Nigeria itself.


The mood of the poem is a nostalgic one. In this poem, the poet reveals his anguish about the dishonest and fake behavior of adults. He says that in those days people were very honest and transparent in their behavior. But nowadays people turned very fake and they pretend to be good towards everybody. Also, they pretend to be affectionate, loving, and caring towards everybody but all their emotions are fake.

The poet has mixed emotions about the past. He seems to be proud of the people and their dealings with others in the past. At the same time, he feels sad to remember that purity and originality are no more in practice.

Come now let’s go into the stanza of the poem.



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.



The first line “once upon a time” suggests that this poem is going to be based on a story or a fairytale? Here the father explains to his son how things used to be in the past. He tells his son that the people in the past were pure and original. In those days they used to laugh with their hearts and eyes. One could see one’s host’s smile on his face. Then the poet starts comparing the past and present and tells his son that people now laugh with their teeth while laughing but their eyes have no warmth in them. Their eyes are fixed on his status.

So, the first stanza makes it clear that the poet prefers the attitude of people from the past. He seems to dislike this change in the attitude of people.



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.


Here the father tells his son that in the past people used to shake hands because they were pleased to see the guests. But now the art of shaking hands also changed. In past a greeting was warm and genuine and also a person was welcomed for who he was. But now the people shake hands with an eye on the person’s status and financial position in the society. People are no longer genuinely warm towards others. They shake with one hand and the other hand searched the pocket.



‘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.


The poet continues to tell his son about the people of modern days. People will invite him to their houses. They show extreme happiness in receiving them it seems like that they often say when he goes to their place they say feel at home, feel comfortable and they say when he leaves come again. But if he goes there once or thrice again and again they will not welcome you for the third time. They will close door on you. People Nowadays are artificial and they change quickly because of the change in culture.



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.


Here the poet addresses his son and tells him that he also has learned a lot of things to fit in the society he lives in. He tells him that he has learned to have a different appearance for different places and situations. He has fixed his smiles and facial expressions for places like home, office, street, and guests.



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 poet tells his son that he also has become adept at the heartless shake and toothy smile. Now he knows how to deceive people with his farewells, welcomes, and false politeness. He also knows how to say people that he is happy to see them when he is actually not happy. He also knows the art of telling people that he enjoyed talking to them when he was bored by their talks. So, here the poet admits that he has also become a part of this culture.

Read our other Poems

Journey to the Interior – Click Here

Still I rise – Click Here


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 !


In this stanza, you can see a twist. The poet repentantly tells his son that he wants to be what he was in the past. He wants to be real and true. He wants to be as pure and genuine as his son. He shows a desire to forget the things he has learned living in that society.

This stanza reveals that the poet has compared the attitude of the people in the past and present. He feels that purity and originality are more peaceful than impurity. He tells his son his desire is to learn that old smile again. He wants to be innocent and naive again. He also compares his artificial smile and show of teeth with the flange of snake, poisonous and dangerous.



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.


Here the poet asks his son to take him to his old days. He asks his son to teach him how to laugh and smile. He wants to learn how he used to smile and laugh in the past. The father asks his son to make him innocent like his old days when he was a little boy like him and society encouraged openness and honesty.

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