Study Guide

Maggie and Milly and Molly and May

Maggie and Milly and Molly and May Summary

Maggie and milly and molly and may decide to take a trip to the beach one day. They all go off in separate directions and encounter different kinds of adventures. Maggie finds a nifty seashell that sings all of her troubles away, and milly finds a starfish with five long fingers. Meanwhile, poor molly isn't having as good of a time because she's busy getting chased by a weird-looking creature that runs sideways. Then there's may, whose experience is a bit tame by comparison. She finds a smooth round stone that's "as small as a world and as large as alone" (we're guessing may is the poet of the bunch). By the end, the speaker tells us no matter what you lose in life, "it's always ourselves we find in the sea."

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-2

    maggie and milly and molly and may
    went down to the beach(to play one day) 

    • We're feeling light and peppy already with all of the alliteration and rhyming we see and hear in these first two lines. Hear that repeated M sound in the beginning of each name? How about the long E and long A sounds bouncing around here? The sounds of this poem are full of energy, bouncing off each other all over the place. (Check out "Sound Check" for more on that.)
    • Plus, we get a nice, regular beat to go with all of these sounds. Line 1 is made up of dactyls, which lend a super-sing-song-y sound to any poem. Check out "Form and Meter" for more on what dactyls are (hint: they're not related to pterodactyls). For now, though, we'll just note that they give the line a DUMdada rhythm that moves us nicely between each name. 
    • So, it looks like we have four little girls, at the beach with their eyes set on a good time. (We can assume that these are kids because of their focus on play.) 
    • But why did the speaker put that last part in line 2 in parentheses? We know that Cummings loved to use that kind of punctuation—and generally avoid every other kind—but what's the effect? And why does it look squished into the other part of the sentence without a proper space between?
    • Those are very compelling questions, Shmoopers, with plenty of possible answers to boot. Maybe that parenthetical clause makes that part of the sentence sound more story-like, as if the speaker is giving us a little aside like a person would in real conversation.
    • And it looks squished because an aside typically sounds… well, squished into whatever story a person is telling. 
    • Alternatively, maybe the speaker wants us to pay attention to the fact that these girls are playing and the mood is supposed to feel light and carefree. After all, whenever a writer uses parentheses, we can't help but pay attention to what's inside since that kind of punctuation catches our attention right away. 
    • Lastly, we just have to point out that these two lines share an end rhyme ("may" and "day") and they're separated off by themselves, which makes them a couplet. In fact, just a brief look at this poem will tell you that it's nothing but couplets, all the way through. So… what's up with that? Check out "Form and Meter" for some ideas.
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 3-4

    and maggie discovered a shell that sang
    so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles,and 

    • In the second stanza, we get to know maggie. It looks like she found a neat seashell that sings. You've probably found a shell like that before at the beach. Typically, it looks like a conch or scallop shell. When you hold it up to your ear, you can hear the hypnotizing hum of the sea in there. And, hey, that hum fits nicely with the hypnotizing dactyl beats we heard in line 1. 
    • And actually, that's kind of the point here with the sonic imagery of the singing shell. Maggie is so enraptured by the magical sounds of the sea that she can't remember any of her troubles. It's like the ocean has this hypnotizing effect that she can't help but feel soothed by. (We can relate.)
    • That's not all of the sounds that are going on here, either. We have more alliteration, with the repeated S sound in"sang," "so," and "sweetly." That seems like an appropriate choice. All those S's seem to mimic the sea's waves. 
    • Rhyme-wise, we'd say that "sang" and "and" are close enough to count as end rhymes. They aren't perfect rhymes, but they add to the speaker's playful, airy tone in describing this good-times beach trip. (Hit up "Form and Meter" and "Sound Check" for more on how this poem is put together, Shmoopers.)
    • Finally, we see some more squishing in line 4 too (not a typo). "And" is squeezed into "troubles," which again makes that line sound super-casual and story-like, and makes the speaker sound a bit like a kid who needs to rush to get everything out that he needs to say (we're just assuming the speaker's a he at this point). Kids do that a lot, especially with the word "and." And then I went to the beach, and then there was a sweet shell, and then this crazy crab came along, and, and, and…
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 5-6

    milly befriended a stranded star
    whose rays five languid fingers were; 

    • Next up is milly, who finds a "star." Wow, what are the odds of finding a star at the beach? Actually, given that location, as well as its five "rays," we're dealing with a starfish here.
    • Since it's "stranded," we can assume that the starfish is all alone, probably on a rock or in the sand somewhere. And we know you super-smart Shmoopers have already noticed some more alliteration here, right?
    • But what's up with line 6 and the speaker's mention of "five languid fingers"? Why are they "languid," which means slow or lazy?
    • Well, when we think of a starfish we can imagine its fingers looking all lazy and floppy. Their extremities never really look that straight and uptight (unless, you know, the poor thing's dead and dried up). Alive, they look more easy-going and flowing—like the ocean.
    • Since milly is the one who befriends the creature that looks a bit lonely and out of place, we might also read into this a bit and imagine milly to be the loner of the group. She looks like she gets where this lonely starfish is coming from because she "befriends" it here. Usually we befriend people (and things) we can relate to. 
    • Plus, the "fingers" part personifies the starfish as a kind of person, which links milly with the starfish in a more human way. Check out our "Symbols and Imagery" section for more on that.
  • Stanza 4

    Lines 7-8

    and molly was chased by a horrible thing
    which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and 

    • Then we have molly, poor molly, who's getting chased by a bubble-blowing crab. The speaker doesn't tell us it's a crab, but we can put two and two together and figure out what this sideways running creature is.
    • Before we get that major clue, though, the ambiguity in "horrible thing" leaves line 7 open for interpretation in terms of the countless "horrible" things a kid might encounter at the beach. Shark? Pirate? This guy
    • And since the speaker doesn't state outright that this is a crab, we can even experience molly's terror in the same way she does, not knowing why this creature is chasing her. Our speaker just tells us that it looks pretty weird running sideways and blowing bubbles (not with gum) and so maybe we're meant to feel the mystery and potential danger of the sea even more. 
    • We certainly hear it here. Where did our rhyme go? These lines are the first that don't even come close to rhyming. 
    • We guess that's appropriate for this scary scenario. There are all sorts of weird things lurking beneath those waters that we don't know all that much about, and that scary looking crab symbolizes that mystery in just the right way. 
    • By now we're also catching a bit of the allegory that the speaker is relating to us through this poem. Each scenario described so far relates to an idea about a real life circumstance. The one we see here, with unknown and scary creatures, makes us think about those same scenarios a kid—or anyone— might encounter in real life. The unknown always has an element of scariness, right?
    • That's the kind of idea the speaker is working with here through the allegory of the scary crab. 
    • From a big-picture perspective, these beach scenes points out how there are always plenty of opportunities to encounter strange, beautiful, comforting, or scary things in life. Check out more about the big, bad, and beautiful world in our "Themes" section.
  • Stanza 5

    Lines 9-10

    may came home with a smooth round stone
    as small as a world and as large as alone. 

    • It's fitting that the girl who strikes us most as the artistic poet of the group would come last. 
    • Now, if you're wondering why we're saying that may sounds like the poet of the group, it's not just because the rhyming  has returned with this couplet. It's because may looks at something as simple as a stone and imagines something as big (or in this case, small) as the world and as abstract as loneliness. Poets do that kind of riffing all the time. Remember William Blake? He's the guy who said you could see a world in a grain of sand. That gets us every time.
    • But how can a stone be as small as a world and as large as an abstract condition like alone? What's the speaker getting at here?
    • We thought the world was a big place. Meanwhile the speaker is describing the stone as both small and large. What gives? 
    • Well, gang, we love a good paradox don't you? Think of it this way: there are moments when the world can feel really small, like when you're stuck in a chemistry lab all day. Then there are moments when the world feels awfully big and lonely, like when you break up with your significant other. 
    • If you put those two kinds of experiences together, you get the idea. Depending on how you look at that stone, it can either look really small or really big, like Blake's idea of seeing a world in a grain of sand. 
    • More specifically, the stone symbolizes that big picture of life and the world here, which can sometimes feel so small that we can hold it in our hand. 
    • Of course, depending on your experience, your perception of the world (and your life) can dramatically change. One minute the world feels like a place you can hold in the palm of your hand, and the next it feels like a never-ending abyss of loneliness. 
    • That explains, then, why we get the seemingly weird second simile (because of the speaker's use of "as"): "as large as alone."
    • (Check out our "Symbols, Wordplay, and Imagery" section for more on the stone.) 
    • Those back to back similes also give the line some parallelism with the repetition of the syntax of "as… as…" Check out "Form and Meter" for more on this technical stuff.
  • Stanza 6

    Lines 11-12

    For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
    it's always ourselves we find in the sea

    • There our speaker goes again with the word squishing side notes.
    • That note's important though, as these last two lines deliver the big "A-ha" moment of the poem (which is made even more apparent by the sudden capitalization of "For"). 
    • The speaker is pretty much saying that we can expect to lose things all the time (even people, even ourselves), but at the end of the day the sea has a way of reminding us of what life is all about. And when we have a moment to explore the simpler aspects of the natural world, we tend to learn something about who we really are. 
    • As far as technique goes, line 11 is made up of something called anapests, which aren't actually pests at all but rather poetic feet that create a certain rhythmic effect. Just like the dactyls we saw earlier, anapests help to create that sing-song-y nursery rhyme sound, which in this case that goes like this: dadaDUM. 
    • Anapests follow the same pattern as dactyls, just in an opposite way, so the speaker is definitely playing with that sound throughout the poem. Check out "Form and Meter" for more details. 
    • The cute little rhymed couplet ("me" and "sea") also has a way of linking nature with people in a direct sort of way. You'll find your "me" in the "sea" with everything else. 
    • At the end of the poem, the speaker is showing us how we've taken an important trip, right alongside maggie and milly and molly and may. No matter which character you identify with most, chances are you have experienced the emotional impact of each of their scenarios right along with them. You've been soothed, comforted, scared to death, and made reflective about the world and your place in it. 
    • To sum it all up, the sea provides a perfect landscape to see all of these life circumstances manifested in the same mysterious place. And we "find ourselves" there because we suddenly discover that nature reflects, in a much simpler way, that same crazy life stuff we experience every day. And isn't that worth being chased by a bubbly crab?