The overall sound of "maggie and milly and molly and may" is similar to a nursery rhyme, with those dactyls and anapests in lines 1 and 11, that we're tempted to call it one. We get perfectly end rhymed couplets like lines 11 and 12 ("me" and "sea"). Then we have alliteration going on, with "sang/ so sweetly" (3-4), "stranded star" (5), and a crab "blowing bubbles" (8). All of this lends a singsong sound to the poem. It's like we can't help but hear our elementary school teacher's voice throughout.
As well, we have a ton of enjambment between the lines, which keeps things moving forward in the free and imaginative way a kid would tell a story. Adding to that speedy sound is the repetition of "and" glued to the punctuation marks at the end of lines 4 and 8. This leaves no room for pausing, so the poem sounds just like any small child repeating a story: "and then Chucky threw the football and then it went through Mr. Grump's window and then we all ran and hid under the porch and then we got mud on our pants and then..."
The net effect of these sonic choices is a tone of innocence and sincerity. That kind of sincerity makes the speaker's simple sophistication all the more poignant, since we're not set up to expect any big ideas about life, and yet—whammo—we get just that in the final couplet.
We're going to go ahead and skip the whole, E.E. Cummings doesn't use capitalization spiel. We got that part, right? Good—moving on. "maggie and milly and molly and may" is also a title that captures the speaker's childlike perspective and tone by using simple rhymes and repeating "and" like a kid would. He could've taken the more sophisticated route and separated the names with a comma, but that wouldn't sound nearly as fun and carefree. Remember, we're at the beach, and we're kids, so the last thing on our minds is sophistication via punctuation.
Alliteration does its part by linking these four girls together in a way that visually makes them look similar in a way. We understand that these are separate girls with separate experiences, but the title also suggests that they have something in common with all of those M's. What's that something they have in common, you ask? Well, we might imagine that these girls, just like everything under the sun, have the sea to thank for their existence (or, at least for the chance to reflect on their existence). They go to nature to encounter some part of what it means to be human and, luckily enough for us, we get to tag right along with them (free of charge) for the same sort of reflection.
There are plenty of beaches all over the world, and no matter which one you go to, you're bound to see the following: kids, water, sand, and sea creatures. The setting of "maggie and milly and molly and may" is pretty universal in terms of its aquatic landscape. Sure, the names sound American, but you can go ahead and swap those names with any language of choice and the setting and themes will stay the same.
Most folks can't help but feel at least a little intrigued by the enduring quality of the ocean, which for many creates a soothing or reflective experience. And experience, not beach time, is really the whole point of this poem. The setting is what produces in the kids—and for us readers—that sense of finding yourself, of going out into the bounty of nature (in this case, filled with lazy starfish and bubbling crabs) for a chance to soak in that big picture of life, the universe, and everything.
Even though the speaker of "maggie and milly and molly and may" isn't a kid, he sure sounds like one. In fact, it seems like he's right there with these four little girls experiencing their adventures in the same way they do. He repeats the word "and" like a kid would, keeps his lines short and (generally) rhyming, and even uses phrases like "play one day" in the same way a nursery rhyme would. His style of figurative language also fits well with his informal tone because it doesn't sound over-the-top when he describes a sweetly-singing seashell and a bubble blowing-crab. Sounds simple enough, right?
At the same time, he flexes his poetic chops now and then when he describes the stone "as small as a world and as large as alone." There's some obvious parallelism going on there (fancy) and a paradox (also fancy) that causes us to pause for a moment and think about what the speaker means by that. He also uses words like "languid" (line 6), which is definitely not so kid-friendly. But these instances of fancy talk are sparse and used only in strategic places in order to further illustrate a particular metaphor or simile. So he's a bit like a kid-friendly modern poet, which may sound like an oxymoron, but it's totally on point with this speaker.
It's his childlike tone that really helps to maintain the poem's casual attitude. It's easy to sound flowing and carefree when you're not getting stuck in super-long narrative lines with big words and big ideas. The simpler the prose, the easier the speaker's voice tends to sound. And that's definitely true in this Cummings poem where less is not only more, it's also necessary in capturing the simple nature of the sea and its mysteries.
Well of course we'd give a poem about a fun day at the beach a sea level rating. It doesn't hurt that "maggie and milly and molly and may" is about kids too, which makes the poem's themes pretty approachable and digestible.
E.E. Cummings was one fun dude. The guy is known for playing with whatever he could get his hands on (poetically speaking, of course). He's recognized (in fancier terms) as being a kind of linguistic rebel because of his nixing of punctuation and capitalization, along with virtually every other rule in the grammar book. But at a deeper level, we sense a truly playful nature in his voice and style that may tackle some universal themes, but does so in a way we can all relate to. Check out these other Cummings shakeups for a better idea of what he was about as a poet: "r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r," "why must itself up every of a park," and "my father moved through dooms of love."
When a poet isn't so crazy about capitalization and punctuation, it's safe to assume he'd be more of a free verse kind of guy. That's definitely true to a degree in "maggie and milly and molly and may." The speaker doesn't stick with a prescribed meter
or rhyme throughout, but he does throw some patterns at us that are worth diving into. Bathing caps on? Great. Off we go:
What's the first thing you notice when you look over this poem—after the general lack of capital letters and punctuation, we mean? If you're like us, then those couplets jump right out. We get six neatly-arranged pairs, just as the poem tends to pair up each girl and her beach-life experience. In that way, the poem's also trying to pair us readers with our own reflections on life, too, so couplets seem like a pretty logical choice for organizing this poem.
Often, when we see couplets, we expect to hear rhyming. In this poem, that's true mostly. We get perfect end rhymes in the stanzas 1, 5, and 6 ("may" and "day," "stone" and "alone," "me" and "sea" respectively). These simple, sonic chimes make the poem sound a little like a nursery rhyme, which would be appropriate for some kids' trip to the beach.
In between these nifty end rhymes, though, are some subtler slant rhymes like "sang" and "and," "star" and "were." These subtler rhymes help to sustain the poem's momentum, but offer us a clue that things aren't always as neat or simple as a perfect rhyme would indicate. This is a modern poet, just in case you forgot. And if you did forget, well poor may gets harassed by a rabid crab (or, you know, a crab with thing for bubble gum) and there is no rhyme at all to help us in that stanza (which ends with "thing" and "and"). These rhymes, slant rhymes, and non-rhymes reinforce the variety of experiences (pleasant to horrible) that the kids have at the beach (and that all adults have in life).
Sure, some of these lines have no set metrical pattern. But others have a beat that you can totally dance to. The dactyls in line 1, for example, follow a DUMdada rhythm that's very common in nursery rhymes:
maggie and milly and molly and may. (1)
When you read that out loud, you should hear four DUMdada beats, which would put this line in dactylic tetrameter ("tetra-" means four).
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me). (11)
The four anapests found in this line make it—you guessed it—anapestic tetrameter. In terms of the meter, it's as if the speaker is deliberately playing with the nursery rhyme form in order to keep the poem's playful spirit intact.
Beyond rhyme and rhythm, there's still more going on in the poem that's worth noting. For example, the parallelism in line 10 also does a great job of lending a story-like sound to the poem by repeating that "as (x) as (y)" clause. It reminds us of Humpty Dumpty and lines that sound like, "and all the king's horses, and all the king's men…"
The speaker also uses a lot of "and"s throughout the poem, usually at the end of a line, in order to keep up that childlike voice. If you've ever sat down to talk to one, you know that kids use the word "and" like it's going out of style, usually because they're so excited about what they're talking about that they have to rush to get it all out before they forget. The speaker was probably thinking along those same lines.
Speaking of forgetting, we can't leave out all of the squishing of words and parentheses that we see. Cummings did a lot of that kind of squishing, but here it seems even more appropriate since it accents the speaker's casual rush to get it all out, again as a kid might. Did you ever notice how sometimes a kid's words sound squished together because they're talking so fast? Visually, the squishing also helps to unify the speaker's ideas and the characters. There's only one period in the whole poem—in line 10—so we get the feeling that the speaker is looking to get this poem, and its chance for some big-picture reflection, out in a hurry.
There's more under the sea than mermaids and crabs that can sing. In "maggie and milly and molly and may," the sea represents life and the world we live in where anything is possible and there are always a few surprises around every corner (or sand dune). It's relatively easy to find something you can relate to in there. Sometimes the sea looks lonely, sometimes it's soothing, and sometimes it's even a little scary. The sea has all of these life elements wrapped up in one big place.
Even though the speaker only refers to the seashell once, it still strikes us as super-pretty and powerful in the way it can soothe maggie's troubles away. In that small shell we can hear the music of an entire ocean just singing away. Symbolically, maybe the singing shell represents all of the things we find comfort in, whether that's a song or just a soothing place or object.
We can imagine milly's "stranded star" to represent any number of things, like a cosmic star, an actual starfish, or even a person's fingers. The personification of "five languid fingers" helps to bridge the gap between human beings and nature, making milly's loneliness a little less lonely. The starfish looks stranded in the same way a person might feel when it seems as if they're all alone in the world. But, as we see here, we're never really alone.
The "horrible thing" that chases molly isn't given a name, but we can figure out that, since it runs sideways blowing bubbles, it's most definitely a crab. But why doesn't the speaker just call it what it is? Maybe the ambiguity here is supposed to leave that "horrible thing" open for interpretation so that we can imagine any possible creature or situation that could scare our own socks off. Since molly can't make heads or tails of it, we get to feel her horror in the same unfamiliar way that she does.
Stones are like the ultimate go-to symbol for virtually every poet, artist, philosopher—you name it. The speaker uses it in "maggie and milly and molly and may" to symbolize the lonely world we live in that can feel both big and small at the same time. May holds it in her hand and gets all philosophical on us because, what else is there to do when you're looking at a stone?
"maggie and milly and molly and may" is as tame as it gets in terms of sexiness. Remember, we're still at the age when boys are gross and pretty much everything gives you cooties.