There was an Old Man of Quebec,
A beetle ran over his neck;
But he cried, 'With a needle,
I'll slay you, O beadle!'
That angry Old Man of Quebec.
This poem is from Edward Lear's A Book of Nonsense (1846/1861). I pilfered the image from the remarkable nonsenselit.org, where all of Lear's nonsense is easily available.
What's a person to make of a poem like this? There's hardly anything there. Context might help. The Penguin Book of English Verse contains three bits of nonsense (e.g., "There was an old man with a beard") stuffed between Robert Browning and Emily Brontë. No, that's not much help.
Reading A Book of Nonsense as a whole increases the strangeness of the limericks. There are 112 of them, two to a page (so one sees four at a time), all with identical meter and rhymes, most, as we see here, repeating a place name for two of the three rhyme words. Each is accompanied by a cartoon, quality ranging from crude to pretty crude.
Some readers might find this monotonous. In Lear's later nonsense books he includes more varied fare - for example "The Owl and the Pussycat" or the nonsense alphabets - as well as more limericks. But in A Book of Nonsense they just come at you. There's no relief.
There was an Old Person of Bangor,
Whose face was distorted with anger!
He tore off his boots, and subsisted on roots,
That irascible Person of Bangor.
So what I mean is, it's a wonderful book. There is no "understand" here. Just delight, or shock, or misfiring synapses. Or something else, who knows?
The title tag is from the "Self-Portrait of the Laureate of Nonsense," something more like a recognizably great poem:
He weeps by the side of the ocean,
He weeps on the top of the hill;
He purchases pancakes and lotion,
And chocolate shrimps from the mill.
This is hardly even the best stanza. I could really go for a chocolate shrimp right now. Off to the mill!