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Edward Lear’s poem “Incidents in the Life of My Uncle Arly” is, like many of Lear’s works, a “nonsense” poem that doesn’t lend itself particularly well to explanation. In fact, part of the very point of such poems is that they don’t make much sense, at least in terms of having any really significant “meaning.” Half the fun of reading such poems is in just sitting back and enjoying the nonsensical ride. To ask the meaning of a poem such as this is like getting off a roller-coaster and asking “What did that mean?” A good answer might be: “not much, but I enjoyed the experience.”
Lear opens the poem by explaining a strange situation:
O! My aged Uncle Arly!
Sitting on a heap of Barley
Thro' the silent hours of night,--
Close beside a leafy thicket:--
On his nose there was a Cricket,--
In his hat a Railway-Ticket;--
(But his shoes were far too tight.)
The rest of the poem proceeds to explain how Uncle Arly happened to find himself in these unusual circumstances. The explanations don’t make much more sense that the original situation itself, and perhaps that is part of their paradoxical significance. This is a poem that defeats efforts to interpret it, even when it attempts to interpret itself. The poem describes the early life, maturity, old age, and death of Uncle Arley. Its tone is whimsical and light-hearted, and this is surely how Lear hoped readers would respond to it – with a sense of whimsy and light-heartedness of their own.
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