Study Guide

Maggie and Milly and Molly and May

By E.E. Cummings

Maggie and Milly and Molly and May Introduction

Well, would you look at that. It looks like singer Natalie Merchant gave her own spin to "maggie and milly and molly and may," which tells us our man E. E. Cummings is alive and well in pop music. Could it be that we nerdy Shmoopers aren't the only ones who can't help but love a good poem by Cummings? Maybe you've heard of the guy because rumor has it he didn't bother with proper punctuation, grammar, and all of the other stuff you have to worry about when writing papers. Did you notice that not a single proper noun in the title is capitalized like it should be? Yup, and that's only the beginning, folks.

Relatively speaking though, "maggie and milly and molly and may" is a bit tame in terms of Cummings's rule-breaking. There are a ton of other Cummings poems that look like they're all over the map, with words to the right, to the left, and even some veering off from dead center. Physically, these poems can be hard to follow, and the takeaway meanings behind many of them can get a bit tricky to decode too. Even in this poem, something as seemingly straightforward as a day at the beach has more going on that you might at first imagine.

We all remember those days at the beach when we were little kids and it seemed as if the ocean was an entire universe of mysteries and adventures. Our imaginations ran wild with all sorts of stories and explanations we could come up with to describe weird-looking things like starfish and scuttling crabs. It's these mysterious qualities that the speaker of the poem captures through the perspectives of kids playing along the shore. Maggie gets preoccupied with a sweetly-singing seashell. Milly befriends a lonely starfish. Molly gets chased by a bubble-blowing crab. And then there's May, who comes home with a smooth round stone that looks like a miniature lonely planet.

Notice anything familiar about these situations? You should, because each one of them is symbolic of the kinds of real-life experiences we all face—within ourselves and in the outside world. Sometimes we need to soothe our worries with music and nature, sometimes we get scared by unfamiliar things, and other times we're reminded that we're not the only ones feeling lonely. All together, the twelve-line poem gets at the heart of our human experience with the simple setting of a day at the beach.

What is Maggie and Milly and Molly and May About and Why Should I Care?

You have to admit that things can get a bit hectic and confusing in a world that's dominated by the hustle and bustle of everyday responsibilities. More often than not, we're dashing to school, or to work, or back home, yet a part of us often feels like something's missing. It's tough to get a moment to breathe, to explore or just think about life.

But today's your lucky day, Shmoopers, because E. E. Cummings's "maggie and milly and molly and may" gives us a second to think about all of the things we've gotten so used to ignoring: in particular, the insightful lessons that nature can offer. When we turn off distractions like our phones, and tune in our brains, the natural world seems to open up and lets us know there's a whole ocean of mystery and adventure to be had. Suddenly we just might discover a seashell that sings to us a whole lot better than Ke$ha ever did.

When the speaker says, "it's always ourselves we find in the sea," we may feel a sudden urge to chuck our laptops out the window and reconnect with nature and the lessons we've been missing while stuck inside. Think about it: how can we really expect to find ourselves in a world that's dominated by artificial stuff? Maybe it's better to experience life in a more natural way, one that's not necessarily coming from a textbook or smart phone. So, how does the speaker suggest we go about doing all this? Why, indulge in some necessary adventure and playtime outdoors, of course. The payoff is totally worth it, as this poem shows us. Not only do you get to discover a new world, you get to discover yourself in the process. Bonus.

Maggie and Milly and Molly and May Resources

Websites

Cummings the Painter
Yup, he was a painter too and a pretty good one at that. Maybe that's why he had such a knack for imagery.

One-Stop Cummings Shop
Everything you could want to know about our man and his work.

Cummings or Comment?
Can you tell the difference between an E.E. Cummings poem and a YouTube comment?

Video

Animated Cummings
Here's a cool little animation of our poem.

Student Project Time
This young filmmaker did an awesome job with our favorite Cummings poem.

Audio

10,000 Maniacs Agree
Check out this musical interpretation, from the former singer of the best-named band ever: 10,000 Maniacs.

More Musical Interpretations
Here's another cool musical take.

Images

Cummings Holding His Head
No one ever said it was easy being a rockstar poet.

Maggie and the Shell
A singing shell really can open the imagination in pretty ways.

Articles and Interviews

Is it a Poem?
Slate tackles the age-old question of what really makes a poem, especially when you're dealing with our man.

The Scholars are Wrong
It's great when we get to say that and, according to this article, the scholars often get Cummings totally wrong.

Books

Fairy Tales
If you like the childlike side of Cummings, you'll love this book.

Harold Bloom
Well of course the literary scholar tackled the most famous modern poet. And this book is also a great study guide.