Literature Questions and Answers

Start Your Free Trial

Who is talking in the poem "Once Upon a Time?" Who is addressed and who are "they" that are referred to in the poem?

Expert Answers info

Elva Dahl eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2018

write204 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Arts

The poem "Once Upon a Time" by Nigeria poet Gabriel Okara is written from the perspective of a parent addressing his young son. The title and opening line, "Once upon a time," frame the poem as a kind of bedtime story or fairy tale, as the father reminisces about a (now lost) time of openness, kindness, and honesty. The group that the father describes and addresses as "they" is never explicitly defined, but it's easy to infer that "they" represent all of adult society. These are the people who have forgotten the innocence and joy of youth and now "only laugh with their teeth" and have "ice-block-cold eyes." The portrait of "them" that the speaker paints is of a society of cold, greedy, and disingenuous people who have lost all of their childhood wonder.

Interestingly, it is clear from stanza four that the parental speaker has learned to behave in exactly the same way as these people he groups together as "they," in order to fit in. But, presumably unlike the rest of adult society, the speaker longs to return to the bigheartedness of his youth: the same bigheartedness that he sees in his son.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

pohnpei397 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2009

write35,413 answers

starTop subjects are History, Literature, and Social Sciences

In my opinion, the speaker in this poem, the person who is doing the talking, is a father.  He is speaking to his son.  That is, presumably, why the speaker calls the listener "son."

I think that what is going on in this poem is that the father is telling the son how much he (the father) misses his younger days.  He is saying that "they" (I believe that he means adults when he says this) are entirely fake.  He believes that adults do not say what they mean and do not really have genuine feelings.  This is why he wishes he could go back to his youth.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial