Once Upon a Time by 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 and Analysis

Once upon a time people were honest and sincere to one another. Their behaviour was free and natural. They had genuine feelings of love, friendship and joy in them. The honesty and true sincerity of their character were reflected in their laughter. People laughed “with their hearts” and “with their eyes”. But the men of the present times have become insincere and hypocritical. Their conduct is artificial and selfishly motivated. They are double-tongued and play fraud with each other. They have forgotten to laugh openly with feelings of real joy. Now they laugh only with their teeth. Previously the eyes of men used to glow with the brightness and warmth of true and sincere emotions of love and friendship, but now the yes of the men are dull and lifeless like those of a phantom or a ghost. They are cold like ice-block. There is no life and warmth of genuine human feelings of love and sincerity in them.

The smiles of modern man are not bright and natural as in the people of the olden days. They (the smiles of the present day men) are sly and mean. They reflect the evil intentions hidden in their hearts. The smiles show that they wish to make fun of people and hurt them. Their cold and terrible eyes search behind the speaker’s shadow to find out his weak points and hurt him through bitter and sly remarks and pungent laughter. The poet reveals through these lines that today, the motives of men are dark and wicked. They aim at demoralising and degrading others and causing harm to them.

Lines 7 to 12

The poet now describes the selfishness and hypocrisy of the present day men. In the olden days people shook hands with each other with feelings of warm friendship and genuine love. This dear handshake between two friends brought them closer. There was real love and happiness in their handshake. In those days people “shook hands with their hearts”. But now people shake hands without any warmth of real love, true friendship or sincerity. A gesture of love and friendship has been reduced to an empty formality. It discloses the hypocrisy and pretensions in the social conduct of the present day men. Human relationship has became now dry and formal. Love and cordiality have vanished from this relationship.

Why has such a change occurred in people’s attitude to others? This is because men have become selfish and avaricious today. They are greedy. Their motive in friendship is some monetary gain. This point is illustrated through a vivid picture. The friend of the poet approaches him with love and friendship which are false and affected. Thus while he shakes hands with the poet with his right hand, his left hand is busy searching in the poet’s empty pockets for money. It means that the present day men are always scheming to gain something from their friends or get their personal interest served through them. The poet has few friends now even to shake hands with him with such selfish motives. This is because he is poor, his pockets are empty.

Lines 13 to 18

The poet gives another instance of the insincere and artificial style of life today. The poet, who was innocent and plain in his outlook and conduct, realized this at his own cost when he found that the hypocritical people of the modern days do not mean what they say. For example, when the poet goes to meet his friends at their place, they ask him to feel comfortable or to come again. But in reality these words are false and meaningless. These empty and false shows of outward courtesy have become the norm of the present day society. Today men have become callous and indifferent to one another. They have ceased to love or be sincere to others. Life has become very busy and artificial today. People have become selfish, arrogant, and self-centred. The time is gone when people invited their friends to their homes out of love, and felt happy in their company. The poet who belonged to the olden times took these invitations of his friends as made in earnest and visited them. He was too plain and sincere to realise that these invitations given by his friends lacked in truth or eagerness. The insincerity and callousness of their nature were revealed very soon. When the poet went to visit them a second time, he did not receive a warm welcome. His visits were disliked and soon the doors of their houses were closed for him. He realised that he was unwelcome there.

Lines 19 to 24

This sort of hypocrisy and insincerity in the outlook and behaviour of people has influenced the attitude of the poet. He has found that there is no sincerity, honesty and truth in people. There is a contradiction between their outward behaviour and their real intentions –between what they feel and what they express. The poet too has learnt the ways of this dishonest and artificial society. He has also adopted artificiality, affectation and artfulness in his behaviour. For example, he meets this callous and hypocritical world, wearing masks of different types of faces suited to different occasions. He observes a particular situation and decides to pay a role that the occasion requires. Artfully, he assumes a particular face and smile at home, a different type of face and behaviour to deal with his colleagues and office staff. He takes to another mode of wishing and greeting the people he meets on the street. As a host, he projects a special expression on his face to welcome his guests. He models a distinct look and expression when he throws open a drinks party. Thus the poet has learnt to produce various forms of smile for every occasion, each according to the particular occasion. There is no life, warmth or earnestness in such mechanical behaviour. In other words, all sincerity and geniuses of emotion or honesty have disappeared from his life. He wears the mask of fixed photographic smiles which he puts up suitably on different occasions.

Now, why do people of the modern times have to pretend such a lot and put up so much of false show in their behaviour? The reason is that men in the present society are no longer as simple and honest as they were in the past. Their minds have become complicated. Their intentions are less than honest and cordial towards others. They are scheming to gain power or wealth.

They pretend to be good and honest but their hidden feelings and intentions are quite the opposite. As a result naturalness, sincerity and honesty have disappeared from their lives and art and guile and craft have crept in their behaviour. The poet has adjusted himself to this general social ethos consisting of artificiality, hypocrisy and hollow social etiquette, by conducting himself in the same artificial way in the society.

Lines 25 to 32

Hence, in such an atmosphere in the society where duplicity and craft prevail in the social behaviour of the people, the poet too has learnt to play false, and resort to craft and artfulness in his dealings. He thus laughs artificially only with his teeth and shakes hands without any warmth and cordiality. He uses nice and pleasant phrases, sweet and catchy words, but these are artificial words without any genuine emotion or earnestness in them. For example, he has learnt to bid a sweet and affectionate “good-bye” whereas in his heart he means “good riddance”. Though he is not pleased to meet someone, he has learnt to declare heartily “glad to meet you”. He feels bored while talking to someone, but he conceals this and utters “It’s been nice talking to you”.

Lines 33 to 39

In these lines the poet out rightly condemns the culture of artificiality and hypocrisy of the present day society. Once upon a time, in the past, in the prime of his youth, the poet was easy and natural in his outlook and conduct. He was sincere and honest towards others. He was good and true in his dealings with people. But the behaviour of men with whom he has lived all this time has killed these sterling qualities in him. However the poet wishes to go back to his former days when he was like his son. He wants to give up this artificial life of false pretences, hypocrisy and selfishness and lead a free and natural life full of goodness, love, honesty and kindness. Most of all, he wants to laugh freely and naturally as he used to do in his childhood when he was a boy and live such a life that brings this kind of a simple and pure smile and laughter.

Lines 40 to 43

The poet asks his son to show him how to laugh naturally and freely as he (the poet) himself used to do when he was as young as his son. His son represents the poet’s past. He is not corrupted by the modern ways of life. He is natural, sincere, true and unaffected. Thus his son represents the poet’s natural and uncorrupted self. The poet wants to save the young generation and the future from this modern vitiating culture. The evils of the artificial culture of today, full of deceit, falsehood and selfish motives have stifled the soul and mind of the poet. He seeks the help of his young son, (whom he loves and who has a great deal of power and influence over him) to take him back to his young days so that he can free himself from the evil influence of the present society and attain the innocence and naturalness of his younger days. He wishes to laugh again freely and frankly with real joy as he used to do in his youth, before the evil and corrupting influence of the present-day society overpowered him.

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