The poet wishes that the modern world would once again become innocent and childlike. He also wishes that he could once again be as natural, honest, and innocent as when he was a child.
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.
The poet tells his son about the behaviour of people in the past and in the present, in the olden days and in the modern world. He remembers a time when people had true feelings for one another. They would laugh from the heart and meet one another with genuine feeling.
But today in the modern, busy world people often greet each other without any warmth in their handshake. They greet each other with a smile or a laugh that does not reach their eyes or warm their hearts. When they say ‘come again’ to a guest they don’t really mean it, they only say it to be polite.
According to the poet, people these days are often interested in meeting people only if they are rich, powerful, successful or famous, and do not value or respect those who have no wealth or position.
The poet says that he behaves very differently in the office, compared to the way he behaves at a party, or on the street. And none of these different faces that he puts on is his natural self or his real face. He says that he has also learnt to say things that he doesn’t really mean, because they are the correct things to say in that situation.
The poet has a deep desire to go back to the innocence of childhood. He is dissatisfied with his own changed self. He thinks that his son’s genuine laughter can teach him how to express his feelings honestly. He wants to relearn how to behave in a natural way. He wants to get rid of the falseness in his behaviour that makes his laugh unpleasant, because he laughs with his lips and teeth and not with his eyes and heart.
The poem, ‘Once Upon A Time’ written by Gabriel Okara, compares the behaviour of people in the olden days with that of the modern people. In the olden days, people were genuine. There was no hypocrisy in their words or deeds. They said what they meant, without any diplomacy. The conduct of modern man, on the other hand, is hard to understand because he puts on many faces and says things which he does not mean.
Like honest speech, hospitality has also become a thing of the past. The arrival of a guest or a visitor seems to be an intrusion on one’s purse and privacy. In the latter part of the poem, the poet also gives a contrasting picture of the simplicity and innocence of children and the pretentious and cunning adults.
The poet is deeply pained by the conduct of the modern man. He longs for the innocence of a child and also reverts to man’s earlier behaviour before the influence of materialism of the West.