In ‘maggie and milly and molly and may’ by E.E. Cummings, the speaker explores a series of emotions through the eyes of four young girls. These girls are innocently playing on the beach and experiencing different emotions, some of which are more pleasant than others. Throughout the piece, a reader can find several examples of Cumming’s “rule-breaking” when it comes to his use of capitalization and punctuation. This is one of the main features of Cumming’s work that sets it apart from his contemporaries.
Explore maggie and milly and molly and may
Through four young girls, the poet explores happiness, comfort, friendship, fear, and reflection. “maggie and milly and molly and may” are at the beach having quite different experiences. One listens to music in a seashell, another finds a starfish, one experiences fear while being chased by a crab, and the final reflect on loneliness and the broader world. As a conclusion, the speaker notes how important the seashore is, and what one can find there.
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘maggie and milly and molly and may’ the poet explores the broader theme of life and all of its emotional experiences. The most central of these is loss and comfort. The speaker alludes to a cycle that all human beings go through when something is lost, like another person or a relationship, and then they find something in return, themselves. Cummings uses the beach as the center of life, the place where everyone can and should go in order to reclaim themselves in the face of all emotional upheaval. The poet also makes sure to tap into other emotional states, joy, friendship, and fear. These can also define one’s life and be found along the seashore.
Structure and Form
‘maggie and milly and molly and may’ by E. E. Cummings is a twelve-line poem that is divided into sets of two lines, known as couplets. These lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, meaning that they are written in free verse. But, this doesn’t mean they are without rhyme or rhythm altogether. For example, the endings of lines one and two, with “may” and “day” are perfect rhymes. The same can be said for the final two quatrains with “stone” and “alone,” as well as “me” and “sea.”
The first line is a good example of how Cummings sometimes used the meter. It is written in dactyls or sets of three beats. The first of which is stressed and follow two of which are unstressed. Cummings way of drifting in and out of a specific structure is fitting for his work, which is more than often experimental and surprising in regards to punctuation and capitalization.
In ‘maggie and milly and molly and may,’ Cummings makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to enjambment, an example of a simile, and alliteration. The latter is a common type of repetition, one that’s concerned with the use and reuse of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, the names of all the young girls in the title, and the first line of the poem.
Enjambment is a formal device, one that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as three and four.
There is a good simile in the last lines of the poem when the speaker says a round stone is “as small as a world and as large as alone.”While somewhat confusing at first, this simile is an important part of the entire piece.
maggie and milly and molly and may
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and
In the first lines of ‘maggie and milly and molly and may,’ the speaker begins describing the basic nature of his story. He tells the reader that three young girls, maggie, milly, molly, and may, are going to the beach to play. In characteristic style, CUmmings does not use capitalization throughout this piece. Additionally, readers will notice right away that his use of punctuation is also unusual. There are no spaces between the end of a word and the commas or parentheses, there is also only one example of end punctuation throughout the entire piece (at the end of line ten).
The first of the four girls finds a “shell that sang” to her. Its sound was sweet and it pushed all her troubles out of her head. With these first words, the perfect end-rhymes, and meter, the poet creates a peaceful and thoughtful mood, one that is meant to soothe and please the reader. Although the poet uses personification to describe the shell as though it is actually singing, readers should recognize that this is a clear reference to a conch shell.
milly befriended a stranded star
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and
In the next line, the speaker describes what milly did on the beach. She found a “stranded star,” or a starfish, that had “five languid finger.” The speaker describes it as “stranded” as though it’s a human being, stuck somewhere it doesn’t want to be. From just this word its easy to imagine that the creature washed up onto the beach and got trapped during low tide. She was comforted by the sight and companionship of the star, something that is immediately juxtaposed in the following stanza.
The next girl, molly, had a less pleasant and relaxing time. She was chased by a “horrible thing” (a crab) that ran at her sideways. This is another good example of the way that Cummings describes something without naming it. It evokes a childishness, with the reader playing the role of the rational parent, having to fill in the names of creatures, and helping the young girls understand the nature of life by the seaside. There is a good example of alliteration in the eighth line with “blowing bubbles”. Molly, unfortunately, is the only one of the bunch that has to experience fear on her outing to the beach. Slowly but steadily, Cummings is taking the reader through a range of emotional experiences.
may came home with a smooth round stone
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea
In the ninth line of the poem, the speaker brings in “may” the last of the four young girls. Her thoughts on the outing are the most poetic of the four. She finds a “smooth round stone” that, the speaker says, is “as small as a world and as a large as alone.” These lines require more thought than the others in this piece. The phrase “large as alone” is characteristic of Cumming’s poetry. It is a simile, one that suggests that a feeling, like loneliness can have a physical size or presence. This feeling of loss is important in these last lines as “may” reflects on her experience in the world.
In the final two lines, the speaker brings the poem to a conclusion by saying that everyone, at some time, is going to lose something. It might be “you” or “me” but in the end, its possible to find oneself “in the sea.” The sea provides all humanity with a landscape in which all of life, and its variety of experiences, is made manifest.
Readers who enjoyed ‘maggie and milly and molly and may’ should also consider reading some of Cummings other best-known poems. For example, ‘All in green went my love riding,’ ‘I carry your heart with me,’ and ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town.’ The latter was originally published in Cummings’ 1940 collection 50 Poems. It is a complex poem that depicts the life and death of “anyone” and “noone”. ‘All in green went my love riding’ speaks on a dangerous relationship through an elaborate hunting metaphor. ‘I carry your heart with me’ is a love poem in which the speaker is telling his beloved that wherever he goes, he always carries his lover’s heart with him.