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Friday, November 28, 2008

'Once Upon A Time' - Notes by Poonam Vaidya

Following is the presentation notes on Perspective IV Semester lesson 'Once Upon a Time' a poem by Gabriel Okara. The presentation was made for II year JPEng class by Poonam Vaidya on 26 Nov.


Once Upon A Time

Gabriel Okara

(Click here for the text of the poem)

The poem

Once Upon A Time highlights the guilt and resentment an African man feels for himself to accepting the culture of the westerners. He notices a marked change in the attitudes of his people—those whom 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. Post-colonized Africa has accumulated a group of people who have completely lost their feeling of community and belongingness and turned into a nation that views its people with hostility, unfriendliness, and suspicion. Their once simple and informal way of behaviour has become artificial and forced, lacking genuine warmth and hospitality. The African man finds himself being gradually affected by this culture. He finds himself behaving in the same way as those around him. He begins to lose his African identity and follow the western way of living. He feels a great sense of guilt and self-loathing and thinks about how fake he has become losing his identity and donning different, fixed expression for different occasions, an unnatural smile plastered across his face.

He resentfully admits that he, too, makes hollow greetings and started behaving in the same way that people behaved with him. 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 beseeches his son, the only person he knows who has not been affected by the new culture, to teach him how to be enthusiastic and happy and live life again. 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.

Structure of the Poem

Slow Paced

The poem moves in a slow pace. The poem uses repetition and quotations to maintain a sense of deliberateness through out the poem.

Personal monologue explaining personal experiences

The entire poem has the man talking to his son. There are no other voices in the poem, and the son remains mute throughout the entire poem. The man explains to his son about the change that has taken place in African society and asks him to help him changing himself.

First Person Narrative

The poem is in first person narrative and the poet uses the word ‘I’ to depict an autobiographical narration of the man.

Lots of Punctuation and Rythming

Begins on a negative tone and ends with a positive one

The man is constantly complaining and lamenting on the change he sees in his culture as well as himself. But in the end of the poem, we still see that the man still sees the ‘ray of light’ in his son, who has not been affected by this negative change and asks him to help him unlearn what he has learnt and regain his child-like innocence once again



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 or ‘spoilt’ by Western Culture and abode by there 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 learnt and help 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 learnt, but a state of mind. Once it is lost, it is gone forever.


The western culture, language, and way of life made a huge impact on the people of Africa. According to them, African culture and religion were inferior to their own, and thus tried to change them, all the while thinking they were doing them a favour instead of disrupting their original way of life. This self-proclaimed superiority left the British colonizers feeling that they were better than everybody was, and all the other cultures were lower to their own.


The man is forced to adapt to the society he is living in and becomes fake, formal, and everything he despises. He feels a deep sense of regret and self loathing, and when he looks into the mirror, he sees his ‘teeth like snake’s bared fangs’ , indicating that he is frightened of himself and all that he has become. This forces him to confide these worries to his son, and asks for his assistance in bringing about a positive change in him.

Negative Change

Gabriel Okara shows very well in the poem how, when people change, and adapt, it is not always positive. The once enthusiastic and friendly society of Africa now treated its own people like strangers and looked at each other with suspicion and hostility. Every man and women was influence but the formal and impersonal western culture and therefore changed their own culture and behaviour in sync with the west.

Being ‘fake’

An indication of being fake and insincere is spread throughout the poem. Lines like ‘but now they only laugh with their teeth’, ‘ice-block-cold eyes’, ‘now they shake hands without hearts’ indicate the insincere attitude of the people. The empty, meaningless, hollow greeting that are said only as a formality, the many ‘faces’ the man puts on according to the occasion are other indicators of this fact.

Hollow Greetings

Greetings and pleasantries make up a vital part of communication in western culture. When the Africans adopted their style of greeting, they were merely words, with no meaning. These simple mutterings replaced the African’s original way of greeting, which contained more genuineness and affection. .

Analysis of the title
The title of the poem, 'Once Upon A Time', has special relevance to
the beginning of every fairy tale, like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella,
Snow White, Rapunzel, and others. It was probably chosen by Okara, as
the man in the poem expresses his desire to go, 'back in time', and
regain his child-like innocence.

Reference to 'I' in the poem
The reference to 'I' in the poem has been interpreted by me, as a man
speaking to his young son. However, in no point in the poem is it
mentioned that the speaker is male, which you very well mean that
the 'I', is a reference to Gabriel Okara herself, talking to her son.
However, due to the lines 'Once upon a time, when I was like you',
have made me conclude, that it is a man who is speaking.


Anonymous said...

The presentation was good...well explained!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the notes :)

Anonymous said...

also, I think because of the use of the term "son" repeatedly in the poem it gives you the impression that the speaker is a man as it is mostly fathers who address their sons as "Son". that is my opinion.

Anonymous said...

well explained...
I don't think that it's implausible that the narrator is female. "when i was like you" could be refering to age, and more importantly, the boy's 'innocent' frame of mind, which she would have had then.

Nishad Bailey said...

well explained...
I don't think that it's implausible that the narrator is female. "when i was like you" could be refering to age, and more importantly, the boy's 'innocent' frame of mind, which she would have had then.

Nishad Bailey said...

sorry, seem to have double posted...

Poonam Vaidya said...

At the risk of sounding 'geeky' , here are a few mistakes i made. Not that anyone is going to read the notes after the exam, but i found soooo many i needed to correct them.

3rd paragraph, 2nd line...'him' is actually 'his'

3 rd paragrapgh, 6th line...'about things' not required.

themes, under childhood, 4th line 'poem' is 'poet'

themes, regret...4th line 'indicates' is 'indicating'

themes, under hollow greetings...'genuinely' is 'genuineness'

I hereby beseech you to alter the terrible crimes of language I have committed and partake in the amendment of this text, in order to facilitate the future generation of Christites who will have to tolerate and put up with the book 'Perspectives'.

rankit said...

Very nice explanation.

VP said...

hey liked the explaination..but i think the author is male and not female :)

Anonymous said...

Gabriel Okara is not a female,so there's a correction to be made in the "reference to 'I'" section in the end of this article.

Nasrullah Mambrol said...

Great analysis! Plz correct the last part. Okara is a MAN :-)

Anonymous said...

Absolutely brilliant and very helpful analysis but maybe would be more effective if the literary techniques were weaved in a bit ☺