Once Upon a Time – a poem by Gabriel Okara

This is a poem by the Nigerian poet Gabriel Okara, in which he laments the lost innocence of youth. In it he condemns the hypocrisy of adults – hemmed in and constrained by rules and conventions – adopting masks for different occasions: for lying, cheating and betraying – whereas childhood is portrayed as a time of honest laughter, and spontaneity.

Once Upon a Time
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.

Gabriel Okara

Who is talking in the poem?
What assumptions can you make about the kind of life he has lived and his present circumstances?
What kind of person do you imagine him to be?
What has he learnt to do with his own feelings?
Who is the person addressing?
What does he hope to learn from him?
What does he mean by wanting ‘to unlearn all these muting things’?
Why do you think the poet has given it the title, ‘Once Upon a Time’?


About The Henry Brothers

We are English teachers involved in ELT publishing in Turkey, and also touring the country giving workshops and presentations to English teachers, mainly on the use of poetry, storytelling and other lively activities in the classroom. We can be contacted by e-mail to canmoorcroft@gmail.com or paul.zarraga@gmail.com
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72 Responses to Once Upon a Time – a poem by Gabriel Okara

  1. aslam vengara says:


  2. Mohamed Aslam. Vengara says:

    so nice….

  3. Amir khan says:

    Lovely.i like it

  4. Read this poem 3 decades ago and it’s more interesting now than yesterday

  5. triciaparedes says:

    the poem simply implicates that indeed time changes every person. because as we grow up, and be everywhere we get to meet different people and meeting different kids eventually calls for us to be appropriate in dealing the. it seems then to be an escape from any misdealing, unlike and misunderstanding that is why the author here is saying that he wears different masks. many are now doing this, not only for escape but also for other things like money, favor, and name.. and what sad here is that this act now becomes inevitable.

  6. km says:

    THE speaker in this poem reminisces about a time when people were sincere and caring in their dealings with one another; 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 poem starts with the well-known words “Once upon a time”, suggesting that what the speaker is going to say is a fairy tale, something so far-fetched it might not even be believed. This makes us think that honesty in expressing emotion is so rare nowadays that it practically is a fairy tale.

    The poet creates a contrast between “hearts” and “faces”. “Hearts” suggests deep, honest emotion. Thus, when people laughed or shook hands “with their hearts”, their emotions came from within. Now, however, they laugh “with their teeth”, not with their eyes. It is a cliché that the eyes are the windows of the soul, but they do let us see what a person might be really feeling.

    If someone laughs with their eyes, we can see their emotions. But teeth, which are hard, white, and expressionless, reveal nothing. And the people’s eyes have now become “ice-block-cold”, revealing no warmth. People are now dishonest (while shaking hands, they use the free hand to “search my empty pockets”) and insincere, saying things they do not mean.

    The speaker tells us that he has learnt to deal with this hard, insincere world by becoming just like all the other people; he too hides his real emotions and speaks words he clearly does not mean. He describes his behaviour in an interesting way, saying that he has learnt “to wear many faces / Like dresses” – like dresses, he changes his ‘face’, taking one off and exchanging it for something more suitable: “homeface / officeface / streetface” and so on.

    We can look at these faces as a series of masks or false faces, which show no real emotion. These faces, unlike hearts, are not sincere. But they are not the faces of evil people either. They are, in fact, the ‘social’ faces that everyone has to put on in order to deal with all the people they are likely to encounter in their lives. Most of us do wear different ‘faces’ – that is, we do behave differently – depending on whether we are at home or the office or school or a party.

    The speaker wants to be as innocently sincere as his young son. He wants to “unlearn all these muting things”; this suggests that he has learnt how to behave in a way which “mutes” or silences his real emotions. He wants to get rid of his false laugh which “shows only my teeth like a snake’s bare fangs” – the comparison with the snake’s fangs makes the false, mask-like smile seem dangerous. The speaker regrets the loss of his innocence, but hopes his son can teach him.

  7. Thanks KM for that well crafted synopsis….and I think it’s true to say that every generation looks back on their youth and sees it as a time of innocence; age and experience bringing discernment and disillusion.

  8. ayush poddar says:

    this poem worth a million. this is the situation now children have also inherited this ‘fake’ smile. they dont know whats the fun behind laughing open heartedly. God will can only save us now form this ‘fake’ world of smiles ……..

  9. Bavya.v says:

    I LIKE this poem. Such a nice and advisory poem.

  10. infanta says:

    I like this poem was relationally emotionalist

  11. Ur analysis is nice,it is of great use to teacher and taught. Thanx

  12. billy says:

    i read this poem 4years ago and couldn’t let it off my mind,it was like yesterday. such a great poem

  13. Tameka says:

    My Interpretation.. I’m 16
    In the first stanza the poet begins with One upon a time’ , This indicates that what he is going to address happened a long time ago and can be further addressed as if it is to happen in his times seems like a far fetched idea. He speaks in 1st person persona and addresses his son. He reminisces on how long time ago people showed their real emotions, :They used to laugh with their hearts” But now they laugh with their teeth. This may seem weird at first but, a laughter is a emotion that is felt from within, to just laugh with your teeth shows that your feelings aren’t apart of it.

    In the 2nd and 3rd stanza he speaks of the has been time. How people used to use their hearts and how they only pretend to do so when really their just seeking oppurtunities. He goes on to explain how even though they expressed hospitality it didn’t last long for soon they stopped offering their hospitality nd started offering their closed doors.

    In the 4th and 5th stanza , the poet is showing how he has adapted himself to be heartless and cold as they (the people) are now. He has learned to “Wear many faces” Like dresses”, this is showing he operates like a robot where he his emotions are not from deep within but are programed , their unreal. He ‘s become just what he had described in the above stanzas

    In the last two stanzas he is once again adressing his son where he regrets turning into the lifeless robots he once detested. He wants to be able to experience the easiness of showing emotions and he wants his son to do so. This signifies that as age comes he developes into that lifeless robot and he wants to go back to the young days where he wasn’t shaking hands to seek oppurtunities, or have faces for different occasions. He wants to be what he was.. Once upon a time.

    Note the use of repition Once upon a time in the beginning in the first stanza and in the ending of the last stanza. Also there is a lot of use of the word heart.

  14. diane ramnauth says:

    so i need help with the figures of speech of the poem??? plz help

    • Diane I would start by thinking about what it means to “laugh with their hearts, laugh with their eyes, and laugh with their teeth” – generally we laugh with our throats and mouths so what’s that all about? And by extension how do people “shake hands with their hearts”.
      And then you should explain what it means to “wear many faces like dresses”. We all do that from time to time but you should try to figure out his particular examples maybe, what kind of face do you think he “wears” in each situation?

      Then how do you “search behind my shadow” – what kind of looking is that?

      Then you’ve got “their left hands search my empty pockets”. Clearly we’re not talking about real pick-pockets here….

      best wishes – JH

  15. Paulina says:

    i love it. it help me to do my essay on once upon a time. thnx bros

  16. Sharon Hussain says:

    This is a timeless poem in addressing the issues that face us all in this harsh world. It confronts us with the outcomes of the daily decisions we make and their continued long term affect on who we are. Who do we choose to be? Should we think a little more when we conform to strictest rule of the expected social norms or do we give ourselves some leniency and take care to be true to who we are, with some consideration to the sensibilities of those around us.

  17. AMAR says:

    I like this poem

  18. soundaryahalapla says:

    it’s verry beatyfull poem

  19. aparna says:


  20. Arunesh verma says:

    Once upon a time poem today is my exam i prepare full.

  21. Julia says:

    Your analysis has been a great help to me as I try to assist my 15 year old with her Literature. In return I wish to volunteer as an editor any time after October. Your contribution to the advancement of our youngsters is priceless.

  22. Neeta Latchhman says:

    Thank you Very Much for helping me!!! This information was very useful to me Thanks alot 🙂 Bye!!!

  23. Simran Latchhman says:

    The Poem was very interesting thank you very Much for the help 🙂

  24. I realy love every verse the the poem.it creats a certain sort of passion in me.its a great work of literature

  25. Harshita says:

    thnx for posting this beautiful poem here….its already in my 12th English literature book…..i loved this poem as it beautifully contrasts the two times : PAST & MODERN

  26. Elmar Talibzade says:

    If you are interested or if you wish to make presentation I have useful bits of information you can use it to make your own. It includes sources, pictures, poetry annotations, his biography, big five (also some more information about the poem) and also presentation. I have used this information, now it’s your turn. It really helped me. If someone has noticed, biography about Gabriel Okara is diffucult to find. Download it here: http://www.mediafire.com/?75yf3vdtoyswyfb Don’t worry! There are no viruses!

  27. JAJA RHAKHO says:


  28. Jen says:

    i love this poem. but the sad part is that its so true. now a days you have to be fake to a certain degree and hypocritical or else everyone would just be rude and mean to each other. when children insult you or say something that could be taken as offensive people just simply laugh or think its cute.

  29. Lorna Gooden says:

    There were times when people would be satisfied with the simple things of life, or better still be satisfied with what they could afford. Today, there exists competition in actually every area of life; each seeking to be better than the other, or amass as much of this world’s goods as one can. With all this obsession, we are hardly able to show genuine interest in others. We pretend to tolerate each other but hoping the other person would quickly move on so we can return to the business of life, to get more work done, or amass more and more of this world’s goods.(Which we soon die and leave behind – if someone does not ‘relieve’us of them before we depart).
    We should learn to appreciate each other and remember “to thine own self be true”.

  30. limun, Gloria says:

    It is indeed true that we are far from the old good practices. As I have heard this poem, I was deeply moved because of what it tries to convey to the reader. We are to simply be of who really we are. How great to feel it. Hope we encourage everyone of this especially those who read this poem. Like it much.

  31. kalika says:

    I really like this poem since I was in my high school days… I’m so glad to know that many people love this poem as I do. Reading all of those posted point of views worth it. =)

  32. AAMIR SHAMIM says:


  33. Hmmmm……….quite a nice poem! I LOVED READING IT.

  34. thanks for the analysis ..it really helps me in analyzing the poem and helps me too how to explain it for my incoming report 🙂 ..God Bless 🙂

  35. G.S 'Nuel says:

    I wail at the lost of my youth’s innocence,
    The thought of them how sweet they were!
    The same now hunts my present stand,
    And I’m like half whose other half is dead,
    O how much I need a revival.

  36. mpho nixon mathabathe says:

    it is indeed unafrican to be so artifficial & inhuman towards each other as people…if only our young people could embrace their africanness & read more african literature they could learn a lot from the works great african poets n novelists like Mr Gabriel Okara

  37. sheila says:

    it’s very helpful especially for the students like me…and we can reflect our life in it.

  38. naveen sharma says:

    very,very and very nice peom and i read this peom in 11th class. thnk ”Gabriel Okara””

  39. a beautiful poem, which beautifully pierces each one of us …a good and a thought provoking piece indeed!!!! thanks Okara ….

  40. Pius khisa says:

    This is interesting. A good portrayal of today’s society.

  41. jhoie caaya says:

    thanks so much 🙂

  42. welli personally love and enjoyed this poem
    i would like help with knowing you guys pointing out and explaining some symbols

  43. I really love this poem. It is very interesting and realistic.I really understand and enjoy reading it.

  44. this helped me alot, love the poem, its so true

  45. M.Jayakala says:

    This is true . Everyone have chosen this way to live on this earth. This is not only for Gabriel okara but also those who are changed their life to follow those kind of faces. I want to relearn how to behave and how to greet people. Gabriel okara was good to write real habits of the people. Past African people had wonderful heart to welcome others but present African people have forgotten that
    good qualities.

  46. Shameer says:

    The poem here exposes the ills of modern African society with its worship of materialism,corruption and artificial values . Laughing and shaking hands have lost their cordiality and intolerance makes one shut doors against another without any provocation .

  47. Oshane says:

    I am studying this poem at school. It’s lovely. I love the fact that although written years ago by Okara it still has the same meaning.
    It’s a shame that wd are changing so much everyday guided by the rules of society that compels that we wear a facade.

  48. Aaliyah says:

    the poet reminisces about the time when people were sincere and they would care for one and other. He clearly stresses the fact that time has change. Now in modern day society, they use masks or false faces in order not to portray their real emotions. Everyone, has at one point in their life, has put on a mask in the journey of life. The author wants to be innocent like his son. This means that he to has worn a mask in some point of his life to silence his emotions. To conclude the poem specks about the the loss of innocence.

    • B says:

      A poem with temporal and timelessness together tries to friends home the values of the past and at present , one has to adapt oneself for the ways of the world are weird

  49. ELTexplorer says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    We can do it in the class !

  50. Radha Ranjani Jayawardena says:

    As usual again Okara lashes out his heartfelt observations very vibrantly and inculcates the reader to think deeply and rationally.I really admire his stream of thoughts. Radha Ranjani Jayawardena. Sri Lanka

  51. danny says:

    once upon a time is a poem written by Gabriel Okara . This poem is about a person telling his son that he wants to be natural .As the poem indicates the narrator face is trained to look in the way that it should look and not i the way it wants to look

    i have learned to wear many faces
    like dresses – home face,
    office face, street face, host face,
    cocktail face, with all their conforming smiles
    like a fixed portrait smile.
    the narrator says to his son that he wants to relearn things and unlearn things which the society made him to deal with.
    this poem is full of techniques (symbol)

  52. gim says:

    the poet compare the past & present nature of the society.he addresses his son and make him aware of the change. in the end he yearns his son to help him to be a real man.he wants to be a sensitivity as his son.

  53. Chandtakant says:

    The poem reaches straight to heart and evokes very pious touching and nostalgic feelings. The best example of the fact that the best can be expressed in simple language in poetry.It also highlights the hypocrisy of elders. Mr. Gabriel is really a man talking to all men of all times. Thanks. The sweet fragrance of the poem will hover forever.

  54. christopher odhiambo says:

    in summery i thank you all for making the task which looked like a mountain to me now looks like a mere task may God reward you all according to your contribu

  55. Mohammad Asif says:

    it is a very precious poem, the writer write this poem carefully and who see what the people’s behavior in the past and feature
    @very nice sir i greet you.

  56. Anantha Kumar N. says:

    Deeply heartfelt lines from an African Writer.

  57. keon james says:

    1.What Effect is Created By the Use Of ‘Once Upon A Time”. What sort of images or ideas come to your minds?
    2.Describe the person talking in the poem and whom they are speaking to?
    3. two lessons the person has learned.
    4.the tone of the poem and evidence from the poem to supoort answer

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