Maggie and Milly and Molly and May
Maggie and Milly and Molly and May
e. e. cummings 1958
“Maggie and milly and molly and may” was first published in 95 Poems, cummings’s fifteenth collection of verse. Like many of cummings’s poems, including “in Just—,” “maggie and milly and molly and may” depicts children at play and uses them as a vehicle to arrive at a universal statement about life. Mimicking the singsong tone and style common to childhood nursery rhymes, the speaker presents four children who have gone to the beach to play and describes what each child finds in the process. Maggie finds a shell, milly a starfish, molly a “horrible thing,” and may a “smooth round stone.” Each of these objects then takes on a larger meaning in the poem; each becomes symbolic of the child who finds it. The poem concludes from these examples that every child, and indeed every person, finds in “the sea” something of themselves. In other words, people receive from the world what they bring to it. If people are friendly, they find friendship; if they are fearful, they find monsters; if they are perceptive, they recognize the transcendent beauty and importance of a single stone. All perceived experience, asserts the poem, is colored by individual predispositions—“Seek and Ye shall find.” As well, however, one might argue that the poem also asserts “Find and Ye shall become.” In other words, the poem suggests that experience changes who a person is and that by virtue of having new experiences one becomes a new and different person. People are constantly evolving, and with every new experience they cease to be who they were and become who they are.
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 14, 1894, cummings spent his childhood in that city, where his father Edward Cummings was a sociology professor at Harvard and a Unitarian clergyman. From an early age cummings showed a strong interest in poetry and art, which was encouraged by his mother Rebecca. Cummings attended Harvard University from 1911 to 1915 and joined the editorial board of the Harvard Monthly, a college literary magazine. While in college, he became fascinated by avant-garde art, modernism, and cubism, and he began incorporating elements of these styles into his own poetry and paintings. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1915 and a master’s degree the following year.
His first published poems appeared in the anthology Eight Harvard Poets in 1917. These eight pieces feature the experimental verse forms and the lowercase personal pronoun “i” that were to become his trademark. The copyeditor of the book, however, mistook cummings’s intentions as typographical errors and made “corrections.” During World War I, cummings volunteered for the French-based Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service. As a result of his disregard of regulations and his attempts to outwit the wartime censors in his letters home, cummings spent four months in an internment camp in Normandy on suspicion of treason. Although he found his detention amusing and even enjoyable, his father made use of his contacts in government to secure his son’s release. Cummings returned to New York and pursued painting but was drafted in 1918. He spent about a year at Camp Danvers, Massachusetts, during which time he wrote prolifically. Beginning around this time, cummings, with the knowledge and approval of his friend Schofield Thayer, had an affair with Schofield’s wife Elaine. Cummings’s daughter Nancy was born in 1919, but she was given Thayer’s name. Cummings and Elaine Thayer married in 1924, at which time cummings legally adopted Nancy. During the 1920s and 1930s, he traveled widely in Europe, living alternately in Paris and New York, and developing parallel careers as a poet and a painter. He published his first poetry collection, Tulips and Chimneys, in 1923. Politically liberal with leftist leanings, cummings visited the Soviet Union in 1931 to learn about that government’s system of art subsidies. He was very disillusioned, however, by the regimentation and lack of personal and artistic freedom he encountered there. As a result, he abandoned his liberal
views and became deeply conservative on social and political issues. Cummings continued to write steadily throughout the 1940s and 1950s, reaching his greatest popularity during this period and winning a number of honors, including the Shelley Memorial Award for poetry in 1944, the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard for the academic year 1952–1953, and the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1958. Despite such successes, however, he never achieved a steady income. Cummings continued to give poetry readings to college audiences across the United States until his death on September 3, 1962, in North Conway, New Hampshire.
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Here the speaker of the poem introduces the four characters. Notice how the repetition of the “m” sound in each of the girls’ names gives this line a musical quality, like a melody, and makes it sound like a nursery rhyme. Such repetition of consonant sounds at the beginnings of words is called alliteration and serves to create among each of the alliterated words an especially musical relationship. In essence, each of the girls’ names shares this “m” quality, and it is implied, at least on some level, that each of the girls is the same or similar. The names blend together and do not distinguish themselves from one another, and each girl’s character and personality is similarly undistinguished. cummings commonly took liberties with basic stylistic conventions and does so here with each of the characters’ names, which he does not capitalize. Capitalization is traditionally used to denote proper names and to signify respect for the individual, it is arguable that by not capitalizing names here cummings is suggesting that each character is not wholly an individual. Nevertheless, the rest of the poem, as the reader will see, serves to distinguish each of the characters from one another and to give the reader a clearer picture of how they are each individual and unique.
This line then sets the scene. The reader is told that all four of the characters have gone to the beach ostensibly to “play.” Notice how cummings uses parentheses to set apart “to play one day.” Parentheses traditionally serve to set apart information that is not vital to the central meaning of a sentence, and in this sense the speaker of the poem is telling the reader that the reasons why the girls went is not particularly important. More important, when one notes that the word “day” rhymes with “may” in the first line, one might argue that the parentheses serve to separate this ornament from the more important thematic material of the poem. In other words, the parentheses point out that the end of this line serves only to complete the poetic structure and that, in a sense, this poetic structure is not particularly important. This is important when one recognizes how the poem diverges almost completely from this rhyme scheme in later stanzas.
Here the reader learns that one of the characters, maggie, finds a shell while she is playing. As is done with shells, she places it to her ear and hears the sound it makes, the sound of the ocean. This sound is so pleasingly musical that she becomes engrossed and forgets herself and all her worries and “troubles.” Notice how the word “troubles” does not rhyme with “sang” and thus disrupts the rhyme scheme begun in the couplet. The reader expects the speaker to tell him/her that maggie was so taken with the shell’s song that “she couldn’t remember her name.” This would at least create a slant rhyme between “sang” and “name.” Instead, having set up in the reader an expectation as to how the poem will play out, cummings diverges from the expected in order to upset the reader’s sense of order. One expects the poem to continue its nursery-rhyme-like rhyme scheme, but instead cummings undercuts this expectation with impunity. One gets “troubles.” The effect is that maggie, as an individual, is characterized not by her “name” but by her concerns and worries, by what she cares about. What these worries might concern is left un-said, but what one learns is that “playing” for maggie means getting away from such concerns and being enveloped in the sensory experience of the ocean and the beach: it means losing herself.
This couplet depicts the second character, milly, and describes what she finds while playing. Note that she “befriends” the star, presumably a starfish “stranded” on the beach at low tide. In other words, play for milly consists of finding and/or building friendships. In this case, however, the friend she finds, the star, has “five languid fingers.” Languid means inert or sluggish or spiritless or lifeless, and it is implied that milly has struck up a friendship with a spiritless, lifeless creature. This then is presumably less than ideal, or at the very least one-sided. One could argue even that this suggests how desperate milly is for friendship and say that she herself is, in this sense, “languid.” That is to say she is somehow lifeless or incapable of creating a friendship with something that is itself alive. Note how the slant rhyme of “star” and “were,” brings the poem back to the original rhyme scheme begun in the stanza. As well, these lines follow exactly the pattern established in the first stanza: the first line of the couplet consisting of three anapests with an extra single stressed syllable at the end of the line, and the second line consisting of an iamb followed by an anapest followed by two more iambs. In this sense cummings reintroduces the nursery rhyme quality of the poem.
In this couplet one sees the third character, molly, and learns that unlike the other two characters described so far, she has found neither solace in music or a friend, but rather has found a “horrible thing,” a sort of monster. That it races “sideways” and blows “bubbles” suggest it is most likely some kind of crab, but more important is the fact that it “chases” her away. This crab calls to mind the spider in the nursery rhyme about Miss Muffett. Like her, molly is frightened away by what is essentially a harmless creature. In other words, it is not the crab which menaces molly, but rather her fear of it, this unknown, unnamed thing. In this sense, the “horrible thing,” symbolizes the unknown and molly’s response to it embodies a particular world view in which the unknown is something to be feared and avoided. For molly, play is defined according to what it is not for her. In other words, for molly play does not include encountering new things or ideas, for when she does, she runs away. Note how the meter and rhyme of the poem once again diverge from the expectations the reader has for nursery rhymes. The effect here is to cast a sort of darkness over the scene. The light-hearted rhythm gives way to something more grinding and full of anxiety and worry. As well, despite the obvious “-ing” rhyme of “blowing” and “thing,” the end-line rhyme scheme is disrupted with the addition of “bubbles: and” in line 8, once again downplaying the poem’s nursery rhyme feel.
In this couplet, one finally sees the last of the four characters, may, and learns what she has found while playing on the beach. Unlike the other characters, who are all described as they are seen on the beach (with the things they discover), may, the reader is told, takes her “smooth round stone” home. This suggests that her experience is somehow more lasting, that it is somehow more important and worthwhile. And yet what she has found is merely a stone. Line 10 suggests, however, that this stone is more important than it may first appear. Indeed, it is “as small as a world and as large as alone.” What does this line mean? One explanation is that cummings is making an allusion to the commonly known metaphysical conceit which says that one can see the world in a grain of sand. In other words, the most minute thing is significant and is a world unto itself. Similarly, the last half
- An audiocassette titled “E. E. Cummings Reads Kaipe/One Times One and 50 Poems.” cummings was well-received as a reader of his own poems. Even though “maggie and milly and molly and may” is not included on this tape, listening to the poet reading his own work would add depth to the poems.
- An electronic magazine (e-zine) titled “Spring” is located at www.gvsu.edu/english/Cummings/Index.htm (January 2001). It offers notes on cummings’s works, a bibliography, links to other websites focused on cummings, as well as some of his poems.
- “The Poets’ Corner” offers an extensive collection of cummings poems at http://www.geocities.com/~spanoudi/poems/cumming1.html (January, 2001).
- A website titled “Hippies, Hindus and Transcendentalists” written by Arthur Paul Patterson, who discusses Ermerson’s essay “The Transcendentalist,” can be found at http://www.watershed.winnipeg.mb.ca/literature/Emerson/Emersonheroes.html (January 2001).
of line 10 celebrates being alone and suggests that while humans tend to be extremely gregarious beings and tend therefore to think of “being alone” as a negative circumstance, “being alone” has its value. Ultimately these lines suggest that may recognizes the value and worth of an otherwise common stone. If this stone is reflective of may’s personality, of her character, then one might conclude that she is extremely perceptive, slightly intellectual, and possesses a definite sense of self-worth.
These lines assert the central theme or message the speaker would have the reader take from this poem. Simply put, these lines build upon the examples given in the previous stanzas and conclude that “it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.”
Line 11 is particularly interesting because it suggests that even if one loses oneself, one is also discovering oneself. In other words, the poem’s message is two-sided. First it suggests that whatever one finds at “the sea” or in the world is somehow symbolic of who one is. That is to say that one’s personality and preconceptions will determine how one views what one finds and in what light one looks upon it. For example, molly is frightened by a harmless crab. This would seem to imply that she is a timid person full of fear. If she weren’t, she might simply look upon this unknown creature as a curiosity. On the other hand, the poem is also suggesting that while one might lose one’s sense of identity when one encounters new experiences in the world, the sum of that experience is who that person is. In other words, what one finds will eventually become a part of who one is, a part of one’s memory and experience. In this sense, every experience one has makes one into a different person than one was before he/she had those experiences; one simultaneously loses a self and gains a new self. That is to say, one is constantly evolving and developing as an individual, and one’s experiences inform who one is and how one interacts with and views the world around oneself.
The poem “maggie and milly and molly and may” represents one of e. e. cummings’s experiments with rhymed couplets. True to his disregard for formal rules of writing, cummings does not rhyme every couplet in this poem. It is also a perfect and, on the surface, simplistic expression of his belief that the outer self is a reflection of the inner self.
Identity and Self
The characters represented in this poem, maggie, milly, molly, and may, could very well stand for four young girls. However, it would be a strange coincidence to have four young girls come together who had such similar names. The fact that all the names begin with the letter m could be a clue that these girls each symbolize an aspect of me. In other words, each represents an aspect of the self, a subject that cummings often reflects on.
Whether the characters are looked at individually or as aspects of the self, the main theme of the poem is a search for the self or identity. Each young girl, or each aspect of the self, is marked by different characteristics. Each one finds something at the sea that is quite unlike what the others find.
Also, each experience is unique and, thus, each lesson learned is very personal.
Maggie, in the second couplet, discovers a shell that sings. The music that she hears is so sweet that “she couldn’t remember her troubles.” Maggie is the thinker, the contemplative one, the one who ponders the troubles of the world (much like cummings). She carries her thoughts around with her, and they have become a burden. But at the sea, she is reminded that art, in this case music, helps one to forget one’s worries, temporarily transporting the self to a place beyond the ordinary. Or to look at it in another way, art (or music) brings one back to the purest state of self, to the uncontaminated present where worries of the past do not exist and troubles of the future are not yet discovered.
In the third couplet, there is milly, who befriends a “stranded star.” Milly is the sensitive one, the one tuned in to the needs of others. She gives a helping hand to someone in need, in this case a starfish. Through the aspect of milly, cummings might be saying that one finds oneself through helping others. Taken on a more personal level, as a reflection on self, cummings might also be saying that when one feels stranded, one need only look as far as one’s own hands for help. The clue to this thought can be found in the word languid which means relaxed (or limp) but can also mean lazy.
Next comes molly who “was chased by a horrible thing.” Molly is the innocent one (the word chased sounding very similar to the word chaste). She is naive concerning the ways of the world, unfamiliar with the unusual. She is both frightened and fascinated by horrible things, as she also notices that this crab is “blowing bubbles”—a joyful, childhood pastime. The fact that molly thinks the crab is horrible based merely on its appearance and manner of walking “sideways,” attests to molly’s easily aroused prejudices for things that do not fit into her narrow definitions of beauty and pleasantness.
May comes home, in the fifth couplet, with a “smooth round stone” in which she finds a complexity. May is a dreamer, a person who can imagine things that are not always visible to the ordinary way of thinking. In the stone that she brings home, she finds that the world is small but in spite of this she, like the stone, feels quite alone. Like cummings, who often had disdain for ordinary thinking, molly realizes that not everyone thinks like she does. Not everyone treasures a small, round stone enough to bring it home from the sea as a souvenir. Not everyone comprehends that one finds one’s identity in the things that are found outside of oneself.
Topics for Further Study
- Describe a place, as this poem does with the beach, where three or four friends might independently pick up things related to their lives. What does this place tell you about the world we live in? What does it tell you about the friendship between your characters?
- The last stanza brings up the idea of loss, for the first time in the poem. Colleen McElroy’s “A Pièd” is all about the loss of an object as seemingly insignificant as this poem’s shells and stones. In what way does this poem offer an antidote to all of the loss described in “A Pièd”? Is it significant that one poem takes place at the seashore and the other on the highway?
- Why do the second and fourth stanzas have different rhyme schemes from the others? Is it significant that they match each other, while the others rhyme in self-contained couplets? How does this structure relate to the poem’s message?
Then, to make sure that the reader understands that this is exactly what cummings is trying to say, he states these sentiments in the last couplet.
“For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) / it’s always ourselves we find in the sea,” are the last lines of this poem, a perfectly rhyming couplet. Also in these lines are the first mention of a “you or a me,” the first time the poet steps away from the young girls and brings the poem home to the speaker as well as the reader, uniting them both in the search for a more universal self, the step that follows the definition of the more ordinary and individual identity.
The cummings collection called 95 Poems, from which this particular poem was taken, has been referred to as a collection that continues along the lines of the Transcendental tradition. Transcendentalism was a nineteen-century movement of writers, most of them living in New England, who believed in the power of insight or intuition, often regarding them with greater respect than the intellect or rational mind. It is through intuition, the Transcendentalists believed, that the deepest truths about human nature were revealed.
Highly individualist people such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman are examples of writers who were attracted to this philosophy. Many reviewers of cummings’s work have included him in this group.
Transcendentalism celebrates the belief that all the knowledge that a person needs in life is inherent, residing inside of them until experience brings the remembering of this knowledge to the conscious mind. There is also a great respect for the organic or natural world as opposed to the man-made or synthetic world. These beliefs are reflected in his poem “maggie and milly and molly and may” in the way that cummings uses the natural world (the beach, starfish, shells, crabs, and stones) as triggers that stimulate reflection. The self-knowledge of the young girls is already known to them. But the memory of that knowledge and the awareness of themselves is reinforced when they reflect upon the things and the experiences that they find at the sea.
“Maggie and milly and molly and may” is written in the tone and style of a nursery rhyme and is marked by both its skillful use of alliteration and its complex end-line and internal rhymes.
Nursery rhymes do not all share a single poetic form or meter, but they are generally marked by their use of end-line rhyme and for their bouncy rhythms. In “maggie and milly and molly and may” these traditional elements serve to heighten the memorable quality of the poem and also to lend tension to the piece. Strictly speaking, the poem does not duplicate the rhythmic pattern expected in nursery rhymes. Instead, the first couplet sets up an expectation in the reader’s mind. The reader expects the poem to continue in this vein, to continue using end-line stressed rhyme and the lines to continue being metrically symmetrical. Instead, cummings takes liberties with both rhythm and rhyme, in order to keep the reader slightly on edge.
The first couplet is written in dactyls, anapests and iambs. Each of these three is a kind of metric foot: a metric foot is a unit of measure to describe a measured pattern in verse. A given type of metric foot (in English verse) is distinguished by a fixed combination of accented and unnaccented syllables. A dactylic foot consists of three syllables, with the stress on the first syllable and the second two syllables unstressed. An anapestic foot consists also of three syllables, but the first two syllables are unstressed and the last is stressed. An iambic foot consists of two syllables, with the first syllable unstressed and second stressed.
mag gie and / mil lie and mol ly and / may / went down / to the beach / to play / one day
These lines exhibit all the qualities of nursery rhyme verse, including the jingly rhythm created by the three syllable feet, and the stressed end-line rhyme of “may” and “day.” In contrast, the second stanza breaks with this pattern of rhythm and rhyme:
and mag gie / dis cov ered / a shell that / sang / so sweet ly / she could n’t / re mem ber / her trou bles
Notice how these metrical feet disrupt the pattern begun in the first couplet, and how the poem diverges from the end-line rhyme scheme. Instead of dactyls, one suddenly gets amphibrachs, three syllable feet in which the second syllable is stressed and the other two are unstressed. Notice as well how the poem diverges from the rhyme scheme begun in the first stanza. Where one might expect the word “name” to complete the rhyme, one gets “troubles.” In this manner, cummings dismisses one’s expectations and forces the reader to adjust to the unexpected. This is a particularly interesting strategy when one realizes that thematically the poem is essentially about how one’s expectations affect how one views the world.
Finally, cummings makes masterful use of alliteration and slant rhyme in this poem. Alliteration refers to repetitions of consonant sounds at the beginnings of words within a line. For example, if one looks at the first line of the poem, one sees that the “m’s” in each of the girls’ names are alliterative and give a musical quality to the poem, which contributes to its nursery rhyme feel. Slant rhyme refers to rhymes that are not perfect rhymes (such as white/bite) but are instead partial rhymes, as “star” and “were” are in the third stanza of this poem. Slant rhyme in this poem serves to undercut the nursery rhyme flavor of the poem while not breaking completely with rhyme altogether.
According to cummings’s biography, the poet was writing for most of his life. From the time he was four, barely big enough to hold on to a pencil, until his death, he wrote poems. His serious writing career spanned almost fifty years, taking him through two world wars, the Great Depression, and into the 1960s’ years of civil protest.
Having been raised in a loving but conservative middle class family in a conventional New England environment, cummings found all the rules and regulations surrounding his proper upbringing somewhat stifling in terms of his creativity. Much of his early poetry reflects his disapproval of the formality of his New England heritage. His poems were full of satire whose purpose was to make fun of the decorum and respectability of the people who embraced the proprieties of the Puritan ethic. Robert E. Wegner in his essay “The Poetry and Prose of E. E. Cummings,” states that cummings believed that he had to go beyond his community to gain an education as a poet.
Besides literature, cummings studied art in both New York and Paris. Through his love of art, he became familiar with Pablo Picasso and his cubist paintings. Cubism was a visual arts style that began early in the twentieth century in Paris. It was a style that emphasized a flat, two-dimensional picture, rejecting the traditional concepts of perspective as well as the theories of art as the imitation of nature. Picasso’s cubist paintings were fragmentations of bodies, still life, and geometric objects. Picasso was a very strong influence on cummings’s early art forms as well as on his writing, as were writers Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, all of whom were looking for new ways to express their art.
Cummings’s education in the visual arts made him very conscious of the way his poems lay on a page. “This training had its most noticeable effect on the typographical and visual appearance of his poems,” says Wegner. Some poems “are designed to be read vertically on the page … one poem looks like a football standing on end.”
In these early years, according to Norman Friedman in his essay “E. E. Cummings and His Critics,” cummings’s poetry reflects his concern with the technical aspects of his poetry. “Cummings is viewed as a seeker after new forms for expressing the new sensibility of the age.” Friedman continues: “Those [critics] who favor him praise his . . . originality. . . . Those who disfavor him say the technical hijinks don’t work.”
Cummings’s “technical hijinks” included more than just an unusual arrangement of words upon a
Compare & Contrast
- 1913: Charlie Chaplin’s first film opens. Chaplin, who has been called a natural comedian or a comedic genius, plays a character in silent films who always finds the brighter side in life, believing (similar to transcendentalists) that all human beings are good at their core.
1977: The movie Star Wars: Episode IV is released. The concept of a special force inside each person is one of the major themes of this movie.
1999: The Matrix opens in theaters around the United States and presents a new vision of reality based on computerized virtual reality.
- 1909: Pablo Picasso works together with French painter Georges Barque to create a completely new way of depicting form on the canvas. Their style of painting is referred to as Analytical Cubism—a break from the traditional form of Renaissance painting.
1913: Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s first performance of “Rite of Spring,” a striking departure from the conventions of traditional classical music, is greeted with riots in the streets of Paris. Stravinsky has been credited with starting the modernist movement in music.
1914: Gertrude Stein publishes her book of poems Tender Buttons, which is highly influenced by Picasso’s cubism. Her innovative writing emphasizes not so much the meaning behind her words but rather the sounds of the words themselves. In her attempt to break from the traditional form of writing, her writing often becomes difficult to comprehend.
2000: New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani withdraws funds from the Brooklyn Museum of Art after the directors refuse to remove a work by Cris Ofili. The artist, in an attempt to break from traditionally used artistic materials, utilized excrement in some of his works. The mayor found Ofili’s work objectionable.
page. He also experimented with punctuation, words that ran together, dislocated syntax, capitalization (and decapitalization) and the misuse of parts of speech.
In the thirties, in between World War I and World War II, cummings’s poetry took on a political air. It is during this period that “Cummings is no longer seen merely as a poet of sensations rather than thoughts, and the problem of individualism becomes central,” states Friedman. To help define cummings’s emphasis on the individual, Wegner states that “throughout his career Cummings insisted that the artist must maintain fidelity to himself. . . . It’s you . . . who determines your destiny. . . . Nobody else can be alive for you; nor can you be alive for anybody else. . . . There’s the artists’ responsibility; and the most awful responsibility on earth.”
During the 1930s, critics were still quick to disparage cummings’s poetry, calling his style immature, eccentric, and self-indulgent; and his themes boring and showing no sign of growth from his earlier collections. Some critics, says Friedman, regretted the fact that “a good poet [cummings] is being spoiled by lack of growth in social issues.”
It was in the 1940s that the mature poet emerged, and critics began to consider him a serious poet. It was also during this period that his poetry took on a metaphysical or Transcendental tone. His works became lighter in tone, often described in terms of joyfulness. This does not mean that all critics appreciated his work. There still were many who could not get over cummings’s use of untraditional typography, punctuation, and syntax— tricks, as the critics called them.
It was in 1958 that cummings’s 95 Poems was published. This is the volume in which the poem “maggie and millie and molly and may” appears. Norman Friedman in the book e. e. cummings: The Growth of a Writer calls this volume of poetry a “remarkable book . . . for the windows of perception have been cleansed, and the satirical vision has been practically replaced by crystal-clear impressions of nature and a consistently maturing transcendentalism.” In respect to the specific poem, Friedman says that in it cummings “reveals a developed sense of how the transcendental world is involved in the ordinary world as well as a maturing grasp of poetic style and technique.” 95 Poems was the last book that cummings would see published. He died in 1962. His last book of poetry was published posthumously.
Cummings’s work has always encountered divergent criticisms. On one end of the spectrum are those critics who deem him one of the most creative and exciting poets of the twentieth century, while others have downplayed his significance arguing that his poems lack anything akin to an intellectual philosophy. Cummings’s work is generally noteworthy for the refreshing ways that it incorporates otherwise common language and for its unique visual style. In most cases, the reader simply needs to look at cummings’s poem to know he authored it. Cummings’s adept use of typographical symbols distinguishes almost all of his poems, and his visual training as a painter made him critically aware of how each poem should look on the page. Nevertheless, many critics argue that such visual treatments are merely ornamental and that cummings’s poems lack original subjects. “Maggie and milly and molly and may” exemplifies this philosophical lacking: arguing that the idea that one gets from experience what one brings to it, and that experience shapes one’s sense of self, is on the whole a rather trite and worn out idea.
One example of this sort of divergent criticism can be found in R. P. Blackmur’s article published in 1931 in The Hound and the Horn. Blackmur asserts “how wonderfully individual, characteristic, original, all [cummings’s] poems are . . . full of perceptions pure as those in dreams, effects of wonderful delicacy and exactness.” In addition, Blackmur argues that “cummings has a fine talent for using unfamiliar, even almost dead words, in such a context as to make them suddenly impervious to every ordinary sense; they become unable to speak, but with a great air of being bursting with something very important to say.” In other words, cummings is able to take common language and make the reader see it in new and interesting ways. Nevertheless, Blackmur also argues that cummings’s poems lack proper subject matter. “Soon as we take it seriously,” he argues, “we see how little material there is in this poetry except the assurance, made with continuous gusto, that the material exists. . . . Sometimes one word, in itself vague and cloudy, is made to take on the work of an entire philosophy.” In short, Blackmur concludes that “there is a great big moral vacuum at the heart of e. e. cummings’s poetry.”
In a similarly double-edged fashion, G. S. Fraser, in an article published in Partisan Review argues that a “general characteristic” of cummings’s poetry is “its steadily sustained youthful strident energy, of which the dark shadow is its almost complete failure to mature.” Fraser also concludes that cummings’s poems exhibit some merit: “There is some of the matter of life here; there is an extraordinary technical dexterity; there is an urbane wit of a very savagely effective sort; a disturbing gift for evoking sexual situations below head-level; one of the most notable talents for direct simple lyrical utterance of this century.” Yet he argues vehemently that “there is something which, however narrow and callow, has been held to obstinately enough to deserve the honorary title of ‘a philosophy of life.’ It is the philosophy . . . of the adolescent who wants the moon down out of the sky, but wants it to stay up there and shine on him, too.”
In response to these two critics, William Heyen, in an article published in Southern Humanities Review argues that cummings’s seemingly anti-intellectual philosophy is simply an extension of Emersonian transcendentalist philosophy. Transcendentalism refers to a school of thought that revered the world of the mind over the world of matter and believed in the power of intuition to lead to Truth. Heyen ultimately argues that “To talk about a ‘philosophy’ or system of thought in regard to a poet who refuses all but illimitable Being is beside the point. Cummings has been speaking a different language from the one so many of his critics have been wanting to yoke him with.”
Hart, a former college professor, is currently a freelance writer and copyeditor. In this essay, she considers the transcendentalist background of e. e.cummings’s poem and then compares the poem to Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s collection of essays Gift from the Sea.
Critics seemed unable to pigeonhole e. e. cummings. He was a man of many moods—some caustic and full of ridicule, others quiet and contemplative. The themes of his poetry were just as likely to be influenced by politics and social affairs as by sexuality and love. But one recurring theme that cummings seems to have always come back to, from the beginning of his career to the end, was his search for self. And in his search, his poetry appears to have been most heavily influenced by the philosophy of transcendentalism.
It was during the 1940s, says Norman Friedman in his essay “E. E. Cummings and His Critics,” that critics started to take cummings’s poetry more seriously, recognizing that cummings had begun to state a more definite view of life in his poetry, and they could see that his “main issue [was] metaphysical.” Critics during this time were “beginning to see the central transcendental vision in cummings’ work.” This does not mean that cummings did not have transcendental leanings before this time, but only that his critics were beginning to appreciate his poetry more; they were able to see past cummings’s unusual attempts at defying the standard rules of grammar, punctuation, and syntax. They were starting to get over their dislike of cummings’s literary hijinks (as one critic called them) and were finding deeper meanings hidden in cummings’s words.
In the 1950s, when 95 Poems (the collection that included the poem “maggie and milly and molly and may”) was published, critics became even more excited about cummings’s work, now stating that his view of life, as displayed in his poetry, not only encompassed transcendentalism but also mysticism. It was as if cummings’s had moved up another rung of the ladder. He became more legitimate, not just a “romantic individualist,” says Friedman, but a mature poet. In particular, the poem “maggie and milly and molly and may,” says Friedman in another essay in e. e. cummings, The Growth of a Writer, revealed not only a “developed sense of how the transcendental world is involved in the ordinary world” but also that cummings had secured a “grasp of poetic style and technique.” So even though there still remained a lot of controversy about cummings’s poetry, there was a consensus of critical opinion that cummings had tapped a transcendental root. But what is transcendentalism? And how is it reflected in cummings’s poetry?
“It is the individual that transcendentalists celebrate—the individual with the indwelling god, the individual with all knowledge contained, the individual for whom Nature provides symbolic answers. Or as cummings sums it up: ‘For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) / it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.’”
One dictionary definition of transcendental is: an adjective that describes something that is beyond ordinary or common experience. But the term transcendentalism became popular in the eighteenth century due to German philosopher Im-manuel Kant who believed that the mind contained very important ideas that were not learned by the senses through experience but rather were innate in every human being. He believed that every human was born with an all-encompassing knowledge that was contained, in what Kant called transcendental form, in the human faculty referred to as intuition. From then on in popular culture, things related to intuition were referred to as transcendental.
But it was in the nineteenth century in America that the philosophical and literary movement referred to as transcendentalism was created. The most prominent authors associated with this movement were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Begun as a reform movement in the Unitarian Church, transcendentalism stressed the dwelling of God (in the form of inspiration or intuition) in everyone. In addition, the soul of each individual was believed to be identical with the soul of the world. It contained everything that the world contained. Taking this belief to a deeper level, transcendentalists believed that every natural fact was a symbol of some spiritual fact. They believed that children were possibly more intuitive than adults
What Do I Read Next?
- Any one of the following books by Ralph Waldo Emerson will offer a comprehensive understanding of the transcendentalist movement in America: Self-Reliance (1841), Introductory Lecture on the Times (1841), and Nature (1844).
- Books by Henry David Thoreau will exemplify the transcendentalist movement put into practice. Thoreau’s most famous book is Walden (1854).
- Modern transcendentalist/modernists include Ezra Pound, an author of prose and poetry. Pound turned his transcendentalist/modernist energy toward the Asian culture, studying Buddhism, Chinese poetry, and Japanese drama. Pound wrote Cathay, which was inspired by the poetry of a contemporary Chinese man, Li Po. Pound also edited a book titled Confucius to cummings: An Anthology of Poetry.
- Gertrude Stein was a contemporary of cummings. She lived for many years in Paris, and her house became a gathering place of many influential artists and authors of the time, including cummings. Her most famous book is a thinly veiled autobiography written as a novel and called The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.
- Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is a collection of his poetry. His major themes are an attempt to identify the American individual as well as the collective group of Americans who possess united souls. One of the most famous poems in this collection is “Song of Myself.”
because culture had a tendency to corrupt people, as they grew older. Intuition or insight was held superior to both logical thought and experience in regard to the revelation of the deepest truths.
Transcendentalists also believed that the external world and the interior world of humans were one and the same. What is outside first exists inside human beings in their intuition. But sometimes people are not aware of this intuitive knowledge and must be reminded of it. And that is where nature comes in. Nature is a living mystery, full of symbolic signs that humans can read. With this concept, the transcendentalists believed that knowing oneself and studying nature were the same thing. Nature mirrored human psyche. “All that you call the world is the shadow of that substance which you are,” wrote Emerson in his essay “The Transcendentalist.”
A deeper interpretation of cummings’s “maggie and milly and molly and may” can be easily missed because the poem is very short and is written in a rather uncomplicated couplet form with simple rhyming patterns. But with an understanding of transcendental philosophy in mind, cummings’s poem takes on deeper meaning. Because of the brevity of the poem, it might be interesting to reinforce the transcendental elements of the poem by comparing cummings’s work with another piece of literature that was published in the same time period. Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea is a collection of essays that expresses a theme similar to cummings’s poem and was published in 1955 (some years before the 1958 publication of cummings’s collection of poems that contains “maggie and milly and molly and may”). Lindbergh wrote the essays while vacationing at the beach, and she uses the nature that she finds there for self-reflection.
Cummings begins “maggie and milly and molly and may” with straightforward writing: four young girls go down to the beach one day to play. This first couplet paints a lovely picture using very uncomplicated words. The image of four young girls playing along the shore on a warm summer morning is a gentle image to conjure in one’s imagination. The fact that these four young girls all have names beginning with the letter m could be seen, at first, as a cute way to begin a poem, making the poem read almost like a nursery rhyme. The names are fun to say, one after the other as the sounds skip over the tongue just as the girls might have skipped across the sandy shore. But the chances of four young friends (or even four young siblings) having such repetitive-sounding names might make the more-than-casual reader a little suspicious. The emphasis on the letter m might give a clue that cummings is suggesting something—possibly substituting individual names for the pronoun me. This is, after all, a poem about self-discovery. “For Cummings,” writes Robert E. Wegner in The Poetry and Prose of E. E. Cummings, “self-discovery was supremely important and the only valid motive for writing a poem.”
Lindbergh begins her book Gift from the Sea in a similar way. The first chapter is a short, simple explanation about her setting: where she is, why she is there, and what she hopes to find there. The setting is, of course, the beach, and she is looking for answers in the form of self-reflection.
Back to cummings poem, the second couplet introduces maggie. “Maggie,” says Rushworth M. Kidder in E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry, is the “‘sweetly’ troubled one.” If cummings is talking through maggie, looking at himself through her eyes, he is saying that when he is troubled, he turns to nature, as transcendentalists do, to find consolation. Maggie not only finds nature, she also finds art in the form of music. The shell sings to her. It is through the shell and its song that maggie (or cummings) loses the troubles of self. And it is in the losing, cummings later states in the last couplet, that one finds oneself.
In the second chapter of her book, Lindbergh also finds a shell. It is an empty shell that has been abandoned twice—once by the snail-like creature that created the shell, and then by a hermit crab that used it as temporary housing. It is through this abandoned shell that Lindbergh realizes that she, too, has abandoned her shell: her roles as mother and wife. She, like maggie in cummings’s poem, has brought her troubles to the sea, but the shell is reminding her to abandon them, if only for this week of vacation, in order that she might reconnect with herself.
Milly is next to be spotlighted in cummings’s poem. “Milly, ‘languid’ and friendly,” says Kidder, “takes pity on a ‘stranded’ starfish.” Here there is the possibility that cummings is saying that sometimes he feels stranded and alone. The “languid” fingers of the starfish could be his own hand that might sometimes seem incapable of writing another poem. Through milly and the starfish, cummings might see that self-discovery requires making friends with oneself. He could be looking at the five-fingered ray as an objective part of himself— the public part, the man as opposed to the artist. And he might be feeling that one part has been stranded from the other. As Wegner states in his analysis of cummings’s play called Him, “the artist is the man; the man is the artist. Neither, by himself, could achieve individuality and recognition of self, for the artist without the man would be sterile and lifeless, and the man without the artist would misinterpret what he perceives.” This also goes back to the transcendentalist’s premise that what is inside and what is outside work together, one feeding the other in an attempt to create a balanced life. Wegner goes further in his statement: “Without the qualifying temperament of the artist, the man would have little resistance to stereotyped beliefs. With the artist and his inner recognition of truth, beauty, and harmony, the man through his senses perceives the manifestations of these in the world around him, and learns to distinguish between what is genuine and what is sham and hypocrisy.”
In the third chapter of her book, Lindbergh writes about having found a moon shell. This shell, by its name, reminds Lindbergh of solitude. As the moon is alone, so are all individuals alone in their journey toward self-discovery. By reflecting on the shell she comes to appreciate her solitude. It is in solitude that the artist meditates and creates. And it is through those meditations and creations that the artist befriends herself and then, just as milly befriends the starfish, the artist is capable of befriending others.
Now molly, in the fourth couplet in cummings’s poem, is “chased by a horrible thing” and realizes her fears as she is frightened by a strange looking crab walking sideways. Molly most definitely represents the nightmares in cummings’s life, or possibly just the challenges that he must face in searching for self-identity. Cummings might be saying that looking into the mirror of self-reflection is not always pleasant. There are parts of oneself that are not always comfortable to look at. And these uncomfortable parts are one’s fears.
Lindbergh faces fears at the beach also. She talks about relationships and how they work after her sister comes to share one day with her. She watches as they perform a kind of silent dance throughout the day, knowing each other so perfectly that they do not intrude into one another’s silences, do not bump into one another as they prepare their meals in a tiny kitchen. She also talks about what destroys relationships. And that is fear. “It is fear . . . that makes one cling nostalgically to the last moment or clutch greedily toward the next.” Clinging and clutching are, coincidentally, strangely familiar tactics of molly’s crab.
In cummings’s poem, “May is the dreamer,” states Kidder, “who in her ‘smooth round stone’ comes upon a symbol resisting simple categorization . . . this poem suggests the two sides of loneliness: ‘alone’ is a quality that looms large in may’s experience, yet, being large, it is hardly a confining and stiffling place.” These thoughts come from the fifth couplet of cummings’s poem where may discovers that the stone she has found is “as small as a world and as large as alone.” Cummings deals with the concept of loneliness in many of his poems. In looking at loneliness, cummings has often stated that there were two sides to being alone. One was loneliness, but the other was the contemplative state from which creation is borne. Immediately following his statement about may and her discoveries about loneliness, cummings starts the last couplet with the word for, which in this case stands for the word because. As if to explain the reasons for being alone, cummings ends this poem with his thematic statement.
One of the first sentences in the last chapter of Lindbergh’s book starts with the words: “the search for outward simplicity, for inner integrity . . .” As if to emphasize the transcendental nature of her own words (which links this collection of essays to cummings’s poem), Lindbergh looks out across the beach and the sea and finds the simplicity that she knows she needs to bring inside of her in order to find unity and peace. “We are now ready for a true appreciation of the value of the here and the now and the individual,” she continues. “They are the drops that make up the stream. They are the essence of life itself. When we start at the center of ourselves, we discover something worthwhile extending toward the periphery of the circle.” It is the individual that transcendentalists celebrate—the individual with the indwelling god, the individual with all knowledge contained, the individual for whom Nature provides symbolic answers. Or as cummings sums it up: “For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) / it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.”
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on “maggie and milly and molly and may,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Saunders teaches writing and literature in the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina area and has published six chapbooks of poetry. In the following essay, he examines three elements that help make cummings’s poem such a memorable poem: its deft lyricism, its selective use of unusual diction and syntax, and its powerful and imaginative figures of speech.
In 1958, when cummings published 95 Poems (his twelfth and final volume), many critics suggested that the author’s creative powers were coming perilously close to being tapped out. In his review of 95 Poems, John Berryman, a fine poet in his own right, noted that not a single poem in the volume reaches “the standard of [cummings’s] finest work.” Berryman also took cummings to task for being “extremely sentimental” and for writing in such a way that “some of his deepest feelings scarcely emerge.” Another critic, Edward M. Hood, complained in his review of 95 Poems that “Cummings is so determined to freshen language (and, thereby, perception) by flouting its conventions that he ends by destroying convention, language, and perception itself.” Hood also asserted that there is a “vacuum of thought and feeling within” 95 Poems. Hood, however, named “maggie and milly and molly and may” as one of the collection’s more successful poems, and over time, the critical body of thought on cummings’s oeuvre has come to see “maggie and milly and molly and may” as one of his finest poems ever.
Indeed, the poem does stand out within a collection (i.e., 95 Poems) of all-too-many undeveloped and tossed-off poems. But why? What makes the poem successful for so many readers, even critics who have had more unflattering things to say about cummings’s poetry than complimentary ones? Surely it’s not the poem’s content, which, when you think about it, seems commonplace and almost trite. The situation described in the poem— four girls at the beach and what they find there— barely warrants mention, let alone any in-depth discussion. No, it isn’t so much what the poem says as how it is said that makes “maggie and milly and molly and may” so successful. For this, the reader must duly acknowledge cummings’s gift for lyricism, his selective use of unusual diction and syntax, and his flare for imaginative figures of speech.
Immediately the reader is captivated by the sounds and rhythms in cummings’s poem. With its pronounced (some might even say heavyhanded) alliteration of repeated “m” consonants and its regular dactylic meter (i.e., one long stress followed by two shorts, as exemplified by the word wonderful), the poem’s first line establishes a musical cadence of strong appeal to the reader’s ear. In fact, the poem’s first stanza is reminiscent of the kind of schoolyard chant one might hear coming from a coterie of young girls playing jumprope at recess; the rhythm is that strong. The strength of this rhythm, bolstered by the full aa rhyme scheme of the first stanza, pays off twofold. First, the rhythm can’t help but grab one’s attention, regardless of the reader’s preference for closed form or free verse. After all, every reader was a child at one time and presumably has the cadences of nursery rhymes and playground chants ingrained within their psyche. Second, the formal strategy employed by cummings in the first stanza reinforces the poem’s theme (and a common one that runs throughout cummings’s canon): the purity and innocence of childhood. Like William Blake before him, cummings viewed childhood as a coveted time before the onset of adulthood corrupts and impairs the individual soul. What better way to introduce this theme than with a nursery-rhyme-like couplet?
But this is cummings we’re talking about—the rulebreaker, the grand “violator” of every accepted standard of poetical and grammatical structure—so you can be sure that cummings will seek to undermine any regular pattern of rhythm in his poems at some point. Sure enough, cummings does so in stanza 2, where he veers off not only from the aa rhyme scheme of the first stanza but also, in line 4, from the dactylic tetrameter (i.e., four-beat line) structure that had so firmly thrust the poem forward from the start. The switch in rhythmic emphasis is subtle and temporary, though, because cummings roughly maintains a tetrameter pattern throughout the poem’s entirety, a pattern that merges both iambic (as in line 6) and dactylic (as in line 7) metrical feet. (An iambic foot is one in which a short stress is followed by a long stress, as exemplified by the word before.)
Toward the end of the poem, especially in the last three lines, a strong dactylic meter reemerges, establishing a forceful cadence that harks back to the poem’s first three lines. This, of course, constitutes a nice balance, and those who generally find cummings’s poetry “sloppy” and “chaotic” would do well to heed this clever, subtle attention to form. It’s also interesting to note that the aa end rhyme on display in stanza 1 also returns in the last two stanzas. The more emphatic rhyming in the poem’s beginning and concluding stanzas seems appropriate in terms of its top and bottom placement, where emphasis is needed most.
Even in the poem’s interior stanzas, where both meter and rhyme seemingly stray furthest from the stricter patterns of the top and bottom stanzas, cummings never strays too far from formal considerations. In the case of end rhyme, some deceptively subtle and highly effective maneuvering is going on. When first reading the poem, one gets the sense that the rigid formal pattern established in the first stanza totally breaks down, but upon closer inspection, one sees that a rhyme scheme, albeit a less emphatic one, is maintained by cummings. It’s easy to see and hear the full end rhymes of stanza 1 (may/day), stanza 5 (stone/alone), and
“But this is cummings we’re talking about—the rulebreaker, the grand ‘violator’ of every accepted standard of poetical and grammatical structure—so you can be sure that cummings will seek to undermine any regular pattern of rhythm in his poems at some point.”
stanza 6 (me/sea), whereas the end rhyme in stanzas 2, 3, and 4 is less overt but nevertheless still present. Notice how lines 4 and 8 contain full end rhyme (troubles, and / bubbles: and).
As for the other lines, cummings makes masterful use of what is known as slant rhyme, in which words don’t sound exactly alike but still produce echoes of each other. Thus, lines 3 and 7 “rhyme” in a sense (sang/thing), as do lines 5 and 6 (star/were). Slant rhyme is often produced via vowel tonalities (e.g., screen/dream), but in this case, the trick is performed through consonant sounds (the “ng” in sang and thing and the “r” in star and were). Cummings’s clever use of slant rhyme in “maggie and milly and molly and may” allows him the illusion of seemingly breaking free of the formal pattern while all the time maintaining it.
Cummings often attracted the ire and exasperation of critics whenever he strayed too far and too often from the rules of poetic engagement. In pushing the boundaries of acceptable diction, syntax, grammar, and punctuation, cummings stepped over the line more often than even a cummings’s booster might care to admit. Sometimes, unfortunately, cummings failed to restrain himself in displaying his cleverness, leaving readers feeling, like the aforementioned Edward M. Hood, that cummings reduces language and meaning instead of expanding them as he intented. This is not the case in “maggie and milly and molly and may,” a poem in which cummings shows remarkable restraint and selectivity with regard to unusual word and punctuation usage and syntax. In fact, this careful selectivity helps make the few unusual examples of diction and syntax he does employ in the poem stand out.
For example, the reversed word order in line 6, where cummings says “whose rays five languid fingers were” instead of the more grammatically standard “whose rays were five languid fingers,” is a stroke of genius. The unusual syntax gives the beautiful image of the starfish more power, emphasizing the human connection (i.e., “fingers”) with the sea, which is what the poem is all about.
Cummings also gets great effect from a few (and highly select) odd word choices toward the end of the poem. These include “alone” in line 10 and “you” and “me” in line 11. Each choice violates conventional usage, but each is so wonderfully appropriate within the context of the poem. In the case of the adverb “alone,” cummings alludes to how one individual (and especially a young individual) normally feels in proximity to something as immense and eternal as the sea. Such an experience is likely to heighten a child’s understanding of his/her own mortality and sense of aloneness. The sea tends to do that to people, no matter how many others are around, and for a child this feeling of aloneness often gets amplified, given his/her small stature. The phrase “as large as alone,” then, produces appropriate reverberations in the context of the poem despite (or is it because of?) its unconventional usage.
Similarly, cummings’s decision to use pronouns in such an unorthodox way (i.e., “a you or a me”) perfectly fits the poem’s context and subject. On the one hand, the poem deals with children, who are apt to demonstrate verbal inventiveness while playing (at the sea or elsewhere) and could conceivably say something like “I’m a you and you’re a me.” A more important point to make here, though, is what the pronouns suggest by way of personal identity. Cummings may be suggesting in the poem’s final couplet that although individual life is temporal and finite (i.e., the loss of “a you or a me”), the sea is a constant source of solace in that it reminds a person of eternity and the potential for an afterlife.
Given cummings’s transcendental views—in which, as noted by author Norman Friedman in his probing book E. E. Cummings, “eternal forms are embodied in the phenomenal universe and . . . are embodied as process rather than result”—such an interpretation has much to recommend it. Transcendentalism is a philosophy whose followers value the spiritual and transcendental over the material and empirical. However, cummings may also be implying that one’s personal identity correlates directly with childhood, that when one grows older, “a you or a me” (i.e., one’s personal identity) gets lost but that the seashore allows a person to recapture memories of his or her youth, granting each one the chance to find that original self again. This interpretation also carries some validity, since it ties in with cummings’s belief that childhood represents the spiritual apex of life, the time of true identity that aging, with its attendant social, political, and cultural imperatives, destroys.
Seen in this light, then, the poem ends on a hopeful note with its suggestion that the sea is always there for each person as a source of spiritual purification and renewal, regardless of how old he or she is. But whichever interpretation holds the most “water,” cummings’s unusual use of pronouns in the last stanza of “maggie and milly and molly and may” is not mere cleverness for its own sake; rather, it draws attention in a most imaginative way to cummings’s exploration of the temporal and the eternal.
Along with his extraordinary lyrical abilities and unusual choices in diction/syntax, cummings’s facility for striking figures of speech also contributes to the success of “maggie and milly and molly and may.” Virtually every figure of speech in the poetic arsenal is on display in the poem. There’s metaphor in line 3 (“a shell that sang”), metaphor and personification in lines 5 and 6 (“a stranded star / whose rays five languid fingers were”), and simile and paradox in line 10 (“as small as a world and as large as alone”). Each is wonderfully imaginative in its own right, but cummings seems to outdo himself with each subsequent figure. The metaphor in line 5 comparing a shell to a living creature that can vocalize tonalities (e.g., an opera singer or a warbler) is insightful and perceptive but not all that remarkable. The use of metaphor and personification in lines 5 and 6, where a starfish is compared to a star with “rays” and to a human hand with “fingers,” is superbly unique, expressive, and imaginative. In fact, this figure of speech is arguably the most beautiful and memorable description of a starfish ever incorporated into a poem.
Yet cummings manages to top even this brilliant metaphor with his astounding synthesis of simile and paradox in line 10. It would have been effective enough to have compared may’s “smooth round stone” to a planet and to the human state of aloneness, but cummings truly gets the reader thinking by reversing expectation and sensibility through his use of paradox, which is a statement that is ostensibly contradictory or nonsensical but nevertheless contains some truth. Worlds are normally considered large and an individual’s state of aloneness small in the overall scheme of things, but by reversing these properties, cummings achieves one of the poet’s key missions: using language to transform a reader’s perception of the world and to heighten awareness of the intrinsic connectedness of all things. By articulating our connectedness to the sea via shells that sing, starfish with fingers, and stones the size of a person’s sense of aloneness, cummings brings the readers that much closer to knowing themselves as well as the world around them.
Source: Cliff Saunders, Critical Essay on “maggie and milly and molly and may,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Smith is a writer and editor. In this essay, she will examine how within the poem, which is a description of children at the seashore, cummings considers innocence, identity, and timelessness.
“Maggie and milly and molly and may” is a poem by e. e. cummings from the volume 95 Poems. Published only four years before cummings’s death, it carries only a hint of cummings’s stylistic hallmarks such as idiosyncratic syntax, capitalization, and punctuation. Nor does the poem touch on many of the thematic concerns—scathing satire of hypocrisy, glorification of love and nature, and praise of individual freedom—that defined the poet as early as his first volume, Tulips and Chimneys (1923). Instead, “maggie and milly and molly and may” is a more meditative consideration of a couple of cummings’s other prevalent themes: the possibilities of imagination, and the innocence of childhood. In this context, the poem also considers questions of identity and timelessness.
The four major characters of the poem, maggie and milly and molly and may, are described in the first two lines as going “down to the beach (to play one day).” Because they are going out to play, the characters appear to be children. The singsong timbre of the lines, the simple AA / BB / CC rhyme, and the conventional, story-like beginning of the poem also echo childhood nursery rhymes. The one instance of unconventional punctuation—the compressed space before the parenthetical “(to play one day)”—gently alludes to the impressionism of a
“It is as if the children of the poem, and cummings too, are able to distill their surroundings to their essence. In doing so, they are able to understand them simply and completely.”
child’s mind and unsophisticated grammar of a child’s speech.
The poem then focuses on each of the children in turn. Maggie discovers “a shell that sang / so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles.” The reader may picture the child holding a large conch shell up to her ear, and listening to the filtered sounds within the shell’s inner cavern. The sound inside a conch, which is often said to resemble the sound of the sea, has a lulling effect on maggie. She is able to drift away from her troubles. The reader may be left to ponder what troubles, in fact, would weigh so heavily on the heart of a child.
In the following stanza, milly also is carried away into a new world. She “befriend[s] a stranded star / whose rays five languid fingers were.” One can imagine the child picking up a coarse, five-pointed starfish, perhaps “stranded” in sand as the tide pulled in, and bringing it nearer to the water. Yet the line also suggests the other kind of star: a star in the night sky.
The relationship between a child and a star is explored throughout children’s literature, most famously in the nursery rhymes “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” and “Star Light, Star Bright.” In these popular poems, stars are associated with wonder (“twinkle, twinkle, little star / how I wonder what you are”), mystery (“far above the world so high / like a diamond in the sky”), and wishes (“I wish I may, I wish I might / have this wish I wish tonight”). The star is a touchstone for the imagination. In this poem, these meanings are augmented by the suggestion of a humanlike quality of the starfish; its rays are described as “languid fingers.” One can almost imagine milly befriending the star, holding it as if it were a hand.
In the couplet that follows, the adventures of molly are described. Unlike milly’s dreamy exploration of her environment, molly is caught in a sinister psychological drama. She is “chased by a horrible thing / which raced sideways while blowing bubbles.” Most children are mortally afraid of being chased by monsters, beasts, or creatures. In this case, a creature, most likely a scuttling crab, is beastly enough to send molly away screaming.
This stanza attests to the other side of the imagination—the side that can see the sinister as well as the divine in the ordinary. This can be interpreted as cummings’s subtle comment on the human psyche. It is complex and flexible enough to consider beautiful possibilities in a star up in the sky and assign poignant humanlike qualities to a starfish, but it also can see danger and sinister qualities in ordinary objects. Cummings’s presentation of these stanzas side by side perhaps implies that both of these aspects of the universe—the divine and the horrible—are legitimate. In both cases, the children bring out these aspects in impartial nonhuman objects and creatures.
May’s experiences and interactions with the world around her have a poignant effect. In may’s case, she contemplates a stone: “She came home with a smooth round stone / as small as a world and as large as alone.” She apparently has been collecting rocks on the shoreline. Like the other children, may has a special relationship with the object she finds. The smooth round stone is almost literally a blank, almost featureless object. Yet its smallness and roundness comes to represent nothing less than the world itself. Characteristically, cummings represents the concepts in this stanza as a kind of inverted equation. The world is described as small, when one would expect that the world would appear huge to a child. Likewise, the feeling of aloneness is often thought of as a feeling of being small or diminished; in cummings’s case, he describes it as being large, perhaps overwhelmingly so.
Cummings’s paradoxes in this stanza serve the poem well, for their spontaneity capture the fresh and unique qualities of a child’s perception. Furthermore, in this poem, the world is indeed small: all of the objects that the children consider, such as shells and stars, are easily graspable and meaningful for them. It is as if the children of the poem, and cummings too, are able to distill their surroundings to their essence. In doing so, they are able to understand them simply and completely.
The last stanza of the poem reveals the voice of the omniscient narrator shining through, offering a homily: “For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) / it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.” Here, cummings acknowledges how one can lose “a you or a me”—one’s sense of self or relationship with others. Even children, whose self is characteristically strong and forging, can sometimes feel empty and unconnected to other people. By coming to the sea, they are able to experience the natural world, and the natural world is able to quietly fill their needs.
In this case, the ocean allows the children to see themselves more clearly. Maggie is able to find something to listen to other than the troubled voice inside her head; milly is able to make a friend; molly is able to come face-to-face with demons (posing as a scuttling crab); may sees the smallness of the world, and the hugeness of herself, in the image of a smooth stone. Each of the children is transformed by what she sees.
Furthermore, cummings’s words in the final stanza are addressed not only to the children in the poem but to the reader. His is an invitation to join the children in finding aspects of oneself that may have been lost or obscured. Clearly, at this late stage in life, cummings is still asking these questions of himself and trying to stay close to the essence of nature and of his own self. As critic Rushworth M. Kidder notes, regarding 95 Poems,
It is a volume full of praise for human goodness and wonder at nature’s marvels . . . As such, it is Cummings’ most risky volume. . . . [A]fter years of distinguishing the merely sentimental from the genuinely affirmative, [cummings] had learned his balance well. [He has refused] to give over his skills at organization, his ear for nuance, and his fertile metaphoric imagination.
At the end of a long life of poetry, cummings is able to deliver needed lessons with skill and grace.
Source: Erica Smith, Critical Essay on “maggie and milly and molly and may,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Brent has a Ph.D. in American Culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema. In the following essay, Brent discusses tone and the process of rereading in cummings’s poem.
“Maggie and milly and molly and may,” by e. e. cummings, is structured in such a way that the use of tone can only be fully appreciated upon rereading the poem. While it begins playfully in the first stanza, the final stanza introduces a serious, perhaps tragic, tone that invites the reader to reinterpret the entire piece in a new light. The reader is thus invited to reread the entire poem, with the final stanza in mind, to interpret the playful, childlike words of the first stanza through the lens of the more serious adult tone introduced in the last stanza.
The first stanza reads:
maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)
Like much of cummings’s poetry, this poem begins with a very playful and childlike tone. The use of alliteration—a series of words all beginning with the same letter—in the opening line, “maggie and milly and molly and may,” creates a lyrical, singsong tone, reminiscent of a nursery rhyme. The rhythm of emphasis throughout the line is evocative of the rhythm of skipping—calling to mind the manner in which little girls might skip joyfully down to the beach to play.
As is also characteristic of cummings’s writing, the first letters of the names of the four girls are in lower case, rather than the grammatically correct upper case. This unconventional choice on the part of the writer serves several functions in creating a playful tone throughout the first stanza. The lack of capitalization allows the reader’s tongue (or mind’s ear) to slide effortlessly over the first seven words of the poem. It also calls to mind the writing style of a young child, whose lack of sophistication may lead her to forgo capitalization of her own name.
The second line of the first stanza reads:
went down to the beach(to play one day)
In this line, cummings breaks with convention by adding a parenthetical phrase after the word “beach,” without a space between the end of the word and the first parenthesis mark. Cummings often played with unconventional word, letter, and punctuation spacing in his poetry. Furthermore, placing the phrase “to play one day” in parenthesis at first seems idiosyncratic in this poem. The sentence more conventionally written could have read well without the parenthesis around this phrase.
What is the effect of these choices on the meaning of the poem? Jamming the word “beach” right up to the opening parenthesis without a space continues the tone of excitement established in the first line—as if the children are so eager to get to
“The beloved person is thus grammatically reduced to the status of an animal or inanimate object, such as one whimsically finds on the beach. And yet the loss of a loved one is infinitely more tragic than that of a found object.”
the beach that they are nearly tripping over their own feet in their hurry to arrive. The tone of the line mirrors this feeling in the sense that the writer seems so eager to reach the end of the line of poetry that he can’t wait for even the length of a space between words to reach his destination—the end of the line of poetry, and, by implication, the beach, where the playing can begin.
While at the beach, the four girls discover items that lend themselves to their childish imaginations. Maggie finds a seashell which, when held up to her ear, sounds as if it is singing “sweetly.” Milly “befriends” a starfish. Molly is chased by some sort of crab, which is described as a “horrible thing,” but one which blows bubbles; thus, the reader is invited to imagine that molly is not truly frightened by the sea creature, but only playing make-believe that it is some “horrible” and threatening monster. May finds “a smooth round stone,” which is “as small as the world and as large as alone”; that a small stone could represent the entire world suggests the vast capacity of a child’s imagination, which can create entire worlds out of the smallest object.
Only with the final phrase of the fifth stanza does a serious tone creep into the poem for the first time. The stone that may finds is “as large as alone.” While even the “horrible thing” that chases molly down the beach is presented as a playful imaginary game in which the child engages in pure fun, the small stone which is “as large as alone” presents the reader with a decidedly somber and adult tone. The word “alone,” which ends the stanza, not only rhymes with “stone,” but creates a heavy, plodding sound which seems to weigh down both the singsong, nursery-rhyme sounds which precede it and the emotional tone of the entire poem. The word “alone” sinks like a stone in the reader’s heart. This word causes a shift in the tone of the poem, from childlike and playful to adult and, to use an expression suggested by the stone, “heavy.” While children certainly experience loneliness, some perhaps more tragically and completely than an adult ever could, it is a general sentiment that childhood is a time of joy, insulated from the depths of aloneness experienced by many adults.
The sixth and final stanza of the poem delves further into this theme of aloneness, maintaining the somber, adult tone first introduced by the word “alone” which ends the fifth stanza. The final stanza reads:
For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea
The first line of this stanza is striking in part because it is the first (and only) instance in the poem in which capitalization is used. After the playful, eager, informal tone of the poem up to this point, in part created by the lack of capitalization, the introduction of a capitalized word suggests a grown-up, serious tone. Furthermore, beginning the sentence with the word “For” implies that a logical conclusion is about to be reached; this is in stark contrast to the imaginative, joyful, frolicking tone of the poem up to this point. Cummings mirrors the second line of the poem in the structure of this line: the final phrase appears in parenthesis, and the opening parenthetical mark is jammed up against the preceding word, without the conventional space separating them: “For whatever we lose(like a you or a me).”
It is by way of the words within these parentheses that the tone of the poem strikes its heaviest blow to the reader. The reader has been clued in by the word “alone” (which ends the fifth stanza) that the poem has taken on a more serious and somber tone. But the idea that “whatever we lose” could include “a you or a me” suddenly introduces the idea of the loss of a loved one, either by death or via the dissolution of a romantic relationship. The phrasing of “a you or a me” introduces the lost loved one as an object, paralleling the description of the objects found on the beach, “a shell,” “a stranded star,” “a horrible thing,” and “a smooth round stone.” The beloved person is thus grammatically reduced to the status of an animal or inanimate object, such as one whimsically finds on the beach. And yet the loss of a loved one is infinitely more tragic than that of a found object. The final line, “its always ourselves we find in the sea,” calls to mind the idea of aloneness mentioned in the previous stanza with the image of a stone “as large as alone.” Having lost a loved one, the “we” of the poem is always left “alone,” and there is only “ourselves” to reckon with.
Source: Liz Brent, Critical Essay on “maggie and milly and molly and may,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Berryman, John, Review of 95 Poems, in Critical Essays on E. E. Cummings, G. K. Hall, 1984, p. 91.
Blackmur, R. P., “Notes on E. E. Cummings’ Language,” in The Hound & Horn, Vol. IV, No. 2, 1931, pp. 163–192.
“Criticism: ‘maggie and milly and molly and may’ by e. e. cummings,” in EXPLORING Poetry, Gale Research, 1998.
cummings, e. e., “maggie and milly and molly and may,” in
E. E. Cummings, Selected Poems, Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1994.
Friedman, Norman, E. E. Cummings, Southern University Press, 1964, p. 168.
———, “E. E. Cummings and His Critics,” in Valuing Cummings: Further Essays on the Poet, 1962–1993, University Press of Florida, 1996.
———, “Xiape, 95 Poems,” in e. e. cummings The Growth of a Writer, Southern Illinois University Press, 1964, pp. 162–173.
Hood, Edward M., Review of 95 Poems, in Critical Essays on E. E. Cummings, G. K. Hall, 1984, pp. 93–95.
Kidder, Rushworth M., E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1979.
———, “95 Poems,” in E. E. Cummings, An Introduction to the Poetry, edited by John Unterecher, Columbia University Press, 1979, pp. 197–218.
Lindbergh, Anne Morrow, Gift from the Sea, Pantheon Books, 1955.
Wegner, Robert E., “Identity of the Artist,” in The Poetry and Prose of E. E. Cummings, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc, 1963, pp. 12–37.
“American Transcendentalism” at www.gonzaga.edu/faculty/campbell/enl311/amtrans.htm (January, 2001).
This site is a great reference website of literary movements. It offers an overview of American transcendentalism as well as quotes from some of the most influential people involved in it.
cummings, e. e., E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems 1904–1962, edited by George J. Firmage, Liveright, 1994.
This collection of cummings’s poems was reissued in honor of cummings’s centennial year. The anthology includes all of the poet’s works published to date.
———, may i feel said he, Welcome Enterprises, 1995. This is an exciting collection of some of cummings’s love poems combined with twenty-one of Chagall’s color prints. The illustrations complement the poetry completely.
cummings, e. e., with John Eaton, Illustrator, Fairy Tales, Harcourt Brace, 1987.
This is a rare collection of four stories for children, “The Old Man Who Said ’Why,’” “The Elephant and the Butterfly,” “The House That Ate Mosquito Pie,” and “The Little Girl Named I.” These are very imaginative and touching stories, giving the reader a look at another side of cummings.
Dumas, Bethany K., E. E. Cummings: A Remembrance of Miracles, Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1974.
Dumas’s text is an overview of cummings’s works with specific reference to the poem “maggie and milly and molly and may” and a linguistic analysis of the wording.
“e. e. cummings” at www.empirezine.com/spotlight/cummings/cummings.htm (January, 2001).
This site is a wonderful introduction to cummings’s work and provides a brief biography of the poet. It also provides commentary on several of his publications as well as critical opinions.
“Modern American Poetry” at http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/cummings/commentary.htm (January, 2001).
This website offers in-depth coverage of cummings’s quotes, critical reviews, background, and historical information about the poet and his life.
“PAL: Perspectives in American Literature” at www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap4/4intro.html (January, 2001).
This website offers an introduction to early nineteenth-century American transcendentalists. It gives a definition of the movement, several pieces of literature that explain the movement, as well as the names of the most famous authors involved in the movement.
“The Transcendentalist,” a lecture by Emerson, at http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/transweb/tdlist.htm (January, 2001).
This site contains a full transcript of Emerson’s “The Transcendentalist,” a speech that he delivered at the Masonic Temple in Boston in 1842 defining his concepts of what the American transcendentalist movement was all about.
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