Once Upon a Time By Gabriel Okara Summary, Theme , Poetic Devices and Solved Questions

NCERT Solutions For Class 12 English

Expression/Phrase Meaning

1. laugh with their hearts: laughter that is natural.
2. laugh with their teeth: the laughter that is artificial.
3. shake hands without their hearts: a handshake that does not show like dresses warmth but a routine formality.
4. shake hands with heart: a handshake that conveys feelings.
5. hands search my empty pockets: the relationship is measured in terms of how much money/ power one has.
6. feel at home: to feel comfortable.
7. there will be no thrice: one is no longer welcome if he/she visits someone very often.
8. learned to wear many faces: people can change their expressions to suit different occasions.
9. like a fixed portrait smile: a smile which remains fixed and does not change with personal feelings and moods.
10. I want to unlearn all these: I wish to forget modern trends and return muting things to a more natural style of living.
11. Cold eyes: emotionless eyes
12. Search: look for something indeed – something which does exist
13. Shut: closed
14. Conforming: normally acceptable
15. Portrait: picture
16. Good–riddance: a feeling of relief when an unwanted person leaves
17. Muting: expressionless/ not expressed
in speech
18. Fangs: poisonous teeth of a snake

Once Upon a Time Summary

In the poem “Once Upon a Time”, the poet expresses his nostalgic feeling for the past when the people were genuine and honest. The poet has addressed this poem to his son. He tells his son about people’s actions in the past and in the present, in olden times and in the modern world. He recalls a time when people had genuine feelings. They would laugh with the heart and have a genuine feeling for each other. But today, people often welcome each other in the modern and busy world without any warmth. With a smile or laugh, you greet each other and do not reach your eyes or warm your heart. When you say to a guest that you’re coming again, you don’t really mean it, you just say it to be cunning. The poet says that people are often interested in meeting people this day only if they are rich, powerful and successful or famous, and do not value or respect those who have no wealth or position.

Once Upon a Time

Have you ever said something nice to someone without really meaning it? Why do you believe that you have spoken? Was it because you’ve been too busy and have not thought about what you said? Was it because in this situation it was the right thing to say? We must learn behaviour accepted in society in order to be separate from society. We start to learn this as we grow up and comply with the situation we find ourselves in. We learn this behaviour to slowly disappear our natural behaviour, and in every different situation, we act in such a way that this situation is deemed appropriate.

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The poet says that in the office he behaved quite differently than he did on a party or on the street. And none of the faces he puts on is his natural self or true face. He says he also learned to say things that he doesn’t really mean because in this situation they’re the right things to say. The poet also says that he too sometimes politely greets a person in this way, even though he may not be interested in meeting him or her. He also teaches them to be “glad to meet you.” The poet is said to have forgotten how to be a natural person like other adults in today’s world.

The poet has a profound desire to return to childhood innocence. With his own changed self, his unhappy. He believes his son can truly learn to express his feelings honestly with genuine laughter. He would like to learn how to behave naturally. It is because he laughs his lips and teeth and not his eyes and his heart that his misbehaving makes his laugh unpleasant. He wants his son to teach him how to smile as he used to in the past.

As children, our feelings are innocent, loving and honest. However, with time, our personality and behaviour are affected by many social and cultural factors. Often these experiences remove our honesty and innocence. In the same way, the old way of life was innocent like a child because in those days people were more honest and caring about each other than they are in the busy, modern-day world. We often don’t mean what we say when we meet people today. We just tell them nice stuff because we don’t want to look rude. The poet wishes that the modern world would once again become innocent and childlike. He again wants himself to be as natural, honest and innocent as he was when he was a child.

People used to be good at heart and harboured genuine goodwill towards others. Nowadays, they only show goodwill while their minds and hearts are full of malice and greed. With the increase in sophistry and spite in modern society people‘s language has become hypocritical and their faces have become masks to conceal deceitful gestures.

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The poet wants to get back to the good old times and to shrug off the snobbery he has adopted. For this, he asks his son to help him unlearn his treacherous ways and relearn innocence and honesty, which are hallmarks of innocent childhood.

1. they only laugh with their teeth: People in modern society only pretend to be happy.

2. their left hands search my empty pockets: While people greet others they are actually hiding their greed and malice.

3. I want to unlearn all these muting things: The poet wants to forget and shed the practices of hypocrisy and malice which have suppressed his real humanity.


The evident theme of the poem is the degradation of social and ethical values in modern society. The poet satirizes the moral bankruptcy of modern man and lampoons his hypocrisy, greed and double-dealing.

The poem, however, operates on another level as well. It is written against the backdrop of postcolonial Nigerian society. Nigeria was freed from British colonial rule in 1960 after more than a century of subjugation. The poet actually targets the legacy of colonial rule by calling it a bane for Nigeria. He wants his son (or the youth of Nigeria) to know how good and virtuous Nigerian people used to be before the onslaught of British imperialism. The colonizers stripped the indigenous culture of its humane values and traditions substituting them with doubt and distrust of the whole human race. He wants his son to return to the old ways which were rich and pure. This makes the poem an allegory of the moral and social devastation brought on indigenous cultures by British imperialism. Regret for what has been culturally lost to imperialism and may not be retrieved is a significant theme of the poem.

The poem also discusses the parent-child relationship as significant for the propagation and protection of social and moral values. The poet wants his son not to fall prey to current hypocrisies and also seeks through him refuge for himself. Another related theme is the clash of cultures and the poem shows how an alien culture (‘they’) dominates another culture and changes the identity of the people.

Hope is also a theme in the poem. The poet warns the son of the horrors of aping the dominant foreign culture and pins his hopes on him. The poet hopes that the young generation of Nigeria will break free of the oppressors‘ invasion of their culture and return to what they actually are.



The poem contrasts the past (pre-colonial Nigeria) with the present (postcolonial Nigeria). It opens with “Once upon a time” which reveals the narrator‘s nostalgia and regret for what has been lost i.e. the good old days.


Allegory is a story in which people, things, and happenings have a hidden or symbolic meaning. Allegories are used for teaching or explaining ideas, moral principles, etc.

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The poem abounds in imagery that reveals violence, greed and plunder. “Iceblock cold eyes” shows the utter lack of warmth in people and “laugh with their teeth” brings alive the grin of a person who is actually thinking malicious thoughts. ‘Search behind my shadow” and “search my empty pockets” recreate the image of a ruthless robber stealing from empty pockets i.e. poor and deprived people. The images also reveal the aggression, fraud and embezzlement which characterized the imperialist rule.

The image of the snake signifies the poisoning of the local people by the imperialists whose malpractices have contaminated the local society and culture.

Allegory and satire

Note: Allegory is a story in which people, things, and happenings have a hidden or symbolic meaning. Allegories are used for teaching or explaining ideas, moral principles, etc.

Point of view

Monologue or dramatic monologue happens when one person is talking to someone whose presence is understood but he/she does not respond by speaking.

The poem has a first-person narrator who is a parent advising his son in a monologue.


The tone of the poem is advisory, nostalgic and bitter. Towards the end, it turns hopeful.

The poem satirizes modern man for his sophistry and duplicity. On a deeper or allegorical level, it bitterly censures the wily, sly and atrocious ways of the colonizers.

Questions of Once Upon a Time

Q. What frightens the poet when he sees his smile in the mirror? What is the poetic device used here?

Ans. When the poet sees his smile in the mirror, his false laugh frightens him because that shows him the teeth like the bare fangs of a snake that has no real sensation. It reminds him of a person whose laughter is like a snake falsely pleasant and therefore dangerous and deceitful. Simile has been used here. The poet uses this simile to show that he forgot to laugh with real pleasure and feeling. He doesn’t laugh with his eyes and heart when he laughs, but only by showing his teeth.

2. The poem is a satire on modern life. It mocks and ridicules some of the common behavioural patterns of modern man.
For example, “I have also learnt to say, “Goodbye” when I mean “Good-riddance”. This is a typical instance of double-talk- use of language that has more than one meaning and is intended to hide the truth. Can you pick out from the poem some more of such examples of double talk? Compare your list with your partner’s.

Ans. The poem is a satire on falsehood and the changing human behaviour in modern society. The poet expresses this by using contradictions and double-talk phrases such as people “laugh only with their teeth,” shake hands without hearts, “their left hands search my empty pockets.” By using phrases like “wear many faces” to show that people behave differently and have different attitudes in different situations and with different people instead of being one’s true self, the poet shows that people in modern society are like actors who change masks on the stage and act in a play. Their actions and feelings are not connected. In modern society, this is a serious problem, but the poet criticizes it in the true style of a satire.

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