You are on page 1of 1

Once Upon a Time

• Having told his son that he has learned to ‘wear many faces’, he implores his son to
But believe me, son.
‘believe’ that he is genuine when he states: ‘I want to be what I used to be / when I
I want to be what I used to be was like you’. The experience that age has brought him has been negative. He
when I was like you. I want wants to return to the innocence of youth. He continues: ‘I want/ to unlearn all
to unlearn all these muting things. these muting things’. His use of the adjective ‘muting’ suggests that he feels that
Most of all, I want to relearn he can no longer truly express himself – he has been rendered dumb by social
convention. ‘Most of all’, he wants to ‘relearn / how to laugh’, as his laugh ‘shows
how to laugh, for my laugh in the mirror
only [his] teeth like a snake’s bare fangs’. This simile ensures that his laugh
shows only my teeth like a snake’s bare fangs! appears menacing as the snake is recognised as a symbol of evil. The repetition of
the phrase ‘I want’ in this verse shows how desperate the persona is.

• In the final verse, the persona asks his son to ‘show’ him ‘how to laugh’; show him
‘how [he] used to laugh and smile/ once upon a time when [he] was like [his son].
So show me, son,
There is a role reversal here. Usually it is the parent who ‘shows’ the child. In this
how to laugh; show me how poem, the parent is asking the child to ‘show’ him. The persona wants to return to a
I used to laugh and smile time when he was innocent of social expectation – when he had the freedom to
once upon a time when I was like you. express himself genuinely.

Gabriel Okara Form and Structure

• The poem is written in free verse. All of the verses are between six and eight lines
in length, apart from the last verse, which is significantly shorter to lend it greater
significance.

Comparative Ideas

• The poem is about the relationship between a father and son, in which the roles are
reversed, so it might usefully be compared with Follower and Old Man, Old Man.

• It is about the changes brought by ageing, so it might be compared to Mirror…

• It is also about personal freedom and so it might be compared with Still I Rise.