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The poem, a preface to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, begins as follows:

All in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide;
For both our oars, with little skill,
By little arms are plied,
While little hands make vain pretence
Our wanderings to guide.

I've bolded the lines I don't understand. I understand what each of the individual words mean, but I'm not exactly sure how this "pretence," which could be a sort of make-believe playing of little children (Carroll is on a boat with three little girls), relates to the final line in the stanza. Since the first two pairs of lines go together, I'm wondering how I should interpret this last pair. Honestly I can't even visualize what "little hands make vain pretence" even depicts.

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"make pretence" is a phrase meaning to pretend. If the pretence is vain, it means it was unsuccessful. So the first line you've bolded means that they were pretending unsuccessfully, but pretending to do what?

In the second line you've bolded, anastrophe is employed: changing the usual subject-verb-object order for the poetic purposes of rhyme and rhythm. "Our wanderings" is the object and "to guide" is the verb.

So you could rephrase the whole thing as:

while little hands pretended unsuccessfully to guide our wanderings.

It means that the children's efforts at the oars may be trying (or pretending) to send the boat in particular directions, but in reality they are moving in a more uncontrolled way across the water.

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    I think the last pair of lines may be implying a bit more. A simple rowing boat is normally steered by applying more or less effort on one side. It's clear these child rowers can't manage that, so the boat will not be under much control. Children find trailing their hands in the water fascinating and could try to steer by using their hands as rudders. This would not work - their hands are far too small - but would match the last two lines. Source: being taken rowing on a park lake, at the age of about six. Nov 17, 2022 at 16:49
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    Further to @JohnDallman's comment, many rowing boats have rudders operated by strings pulled by the person in the stern seat. As Vasting notes that there are three children, it is also possible that with one on each oar, the third child is playing with the strings, if they are only gliding along with no propulsion from the oars, the steering won't make a great deal of difference to the boat's trajectory. I offer this on the evidence of having lately rowed such a boat on the Avon, in the shadow of the RSC.
    – Spagirl
    Nov 22, 2022 at 12:30

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