Critical Analysis of Once Upon A Time by Gabriel Okara


Once Upon A Time is about a father teaching his son regarding the dangers of fake friends and how times have changed. This infers that it used to happen by the use of the word, ‘now’ because it shows that in the present tense it doesn’t happen anymore because they’ve grown up. The poet also signifies an emotion of disappointment and that he wished he had learned earlier on how to put on a fake smile and deal with people that don’t want to be his friend. The main speaker in the poem regrets about a time in the speakers’ life when people were sincere and caring in their dealings. He speaks regretfully about the present time when people are not like before. He seems to feel that people have lost the innocence and openness which he now sees in his young son. He wants to regain that innocence.

The poet displays how they used to be his friends and something must have transformed for them friends to keep running back to him even though they aren’t true friends.

The Setting of Once Upon A Time:

The mood of the poem is nostalgic. The personality is remembering how things used to be when he was young and innocent, like his son. The poem highlights the guilt and resentment an African man feels for himself to accept the culture of the westerners. He notices a marked change in the attitudes of his people-those who were once so genuine, warm and sincere have now suddenly turned cold and hostile towards him.

The poets’ use of a child like lexical field contradicts the poems morals about growing up. “Once upon a time” leads the readers to believe it to be like a story and the poet does present it in a narrative way, but once we realize he is talking to her son it could suggest the fairy tale feel is on his behalf. The poem is also structured like a mirror as the first 3 stanzas talk about innocence whereas the next 3 portray experience, furthermore, the poet is constantly reflecting on the two times of their life.

Critical Analysis of Once Upon A Time:

The poem received sneering criticism after its release. The poets’ use of a child like lexical field contradicts the poems morals about growing up. The poem leads the readers to believe it to be like a story and the poet does present it in a narrative way, but once we realize he is talking to his son it could suggest the fairy tale feel is on his behalf. The poem is also structured like a mirror as the first 3 stanzas talk about innocence whereas the next 3 portray experience. Furthermore, the poet is constantly reflecting on the two times of their life.

The speakers’ expression of the adult society is extremely negative. The poet industriously portrays how the harsh view of society is actually what he resents about himself. This implies his child may not be very young as they don’t want to see the bad in their parents but we know he still has innocence. This wants to return to the beginning of the poem shows how the poet is desperate to not let him end this way yet it is at the end of the poem that he wants to return to the start. This circular structure imitates how many people want to be older when they are young but want to be young when they are older.

Annotations Once Upon A Time:

In the first stanza of the poem, the poem tells of the conversation between what seems to be a father and son, where the father wants to learn from his son how to go back to normality and no longer fake. The poem starts by the father telling his son how the people used to laugh with their hearts’. Also, this description in the poem gives the impression of genuine emotion given off by the people. 

Stanza two of the Gabriel Okara poem then reveals more of the past when it is said that, ‘they used to shake hands with their hearts’, again this image reveals true and genuine emotion. But just as in the first Stanza the present reality is then discussed when it is said that, ‘that has gone, now they only shake hands without hearts while their left hands search his empty pockets’. This shows that again the people are not true and seem to be using the man to see what they can get.

Stanza three of the poem starts positive with the phrases, ‘feel at home’, ‘come again’, but then goes on to say that he will come again, ‘once, twice’ but there will ‘be no more thrice’ for the ‘I find doors shut on me’. This shows that the people lie when they say the positive phrases and after a few visits they have all that they want from the man. Their falseness is reflected in the language they use. 

Stanza four presents the adaptations and solutions that the man has found to counter the problems. It starts by saying that the man has, ‘learned many things’, already suggesting that he has changed to fit in. 

He tells of the false personalities or of his ‘many faces’. He tells that he has learned to ‘wear’ these faces, suggesting that he wears faces for different situations. For example, he says he has an ‘office-face, street-face, and host-face, proving that he acts differently under different circumstances. He then adds that they have, ‘conforming smiles, like a fixed portrait’. This suggests, even more, falseness and changes.

Poetic Devices in Once Upon A Time:

One of the poetic devices used is Metaphor. The poet says that people’s eyes are as cold as ice. This means that there is no warmth or real feeling in the words that they say, or how they behave. This metaphor literally allows you to visualize a block of ice, cold and unwelcoming.

The use of Similie is reflected in several areas. The poet compares people’s faces to smiles in a portrait. If you think about a portrait, it is usually very formal and stiff, even uncomfortable. Therefore, the implication is that the smiles are actually fake and stiff. They are conforming or trying to fit, to a preconceived mold that is set up by societal expectations. The poet compares the persona’s laugh to snakes’. When you think of a snake, words such as sneaky and deceitful come to mind. Therefore, the implication is that the persona is false just like the people he despises.

The Theme, Tone, and Central Idea of Once Upon A Time:

The poem has mixed feelings of childhood, regret, and innocence. The child in the poem is a symbol of innocence, purity, enthusiasm, happiness, and genuineness lacking in society. The child represents the group of people who have not been affected by Western Culture and abode by their own culture. The poet, struck by a sense of self-loathing and regret, turns to his son in his time of need and asks him to help him unlearn whatever he has learned and helped him regain his child-like innocence.

Innocence is a fading aspect in the man’s society. People always appear deceitful and cunning. The child, however, is a picture of innocence and acts without any malice or ulterior motive. The man wishes to gain this innocence from his son, though he fails to realize that innocence is not learned, a state of mind. Once it is lost, it is gone forever.

Conclusion

Once Upon A Time highlights the guilt and resentment an African man feels for himself to accept the culture of the westerners. He notices a marked change in the attitudes of his people. Those who were once so genuine, warm and sincere have now suddenly turned cold and hostile towards him.

He realizes that the early values, which always existed in the African society like sincerity, good-natured ness, simplicity, wholeheartedness, hospitality, friendliness, originality, identity, uniqueness and overall satisfaction, have now faced a drastic, dramatic change. He finds himself behaving in the same way as those around him. He feels a great sense of guilt and self-loathing and thinks about how fake he has become losing his identity and donning different, the fixed expression for different occasions, an unnatural smile plastered across his face.

He confesses to his son that he does not like the person he has become and wants to change, and go back to the way he was before, in his childhood. He asks his son to help him go back to who he was, and get back his lost identity. He expresses a desire to unlearn whatever he has forced himself to learn, in order for him to gain his sense of self back. He asks his son to help him be happy once again and acquire the childlike innocence he once possessed as a child.

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