Study Guide

Maggie and Milly and Molly and May Themes

  • Youth

    Maybe you remember the good ol' days, when your family used to take you to the beach and everything seemed so simple and fun. Even if you didn't grow up near a beach, you likely had some sort of nature retreat nearby that captured your imagination. Maybe there was a magical tree you used to climb, or a park where goblins and fairies were never too far away. "maggie and milly and molly and may" explores those same experiences of our youth, when the world looked so magical and sometimes scary at the same time. We might not remember those days as clearly as we used to, but our speaker's here to remind us of the kinds of hidden truths that nature reveals to us when we're young (and even old).

    Questions About Youth

    1. How does the speaker create a younger sounding voice? What kinds of devices does he use?
    2. Why do all of the girls have similar sounding names? Is there something they all seem to have in common at the beach?
    3. Why is molly so afraid of the bubble-blowing crab? What's the speaker trying to suggest about fear and youth in that stanza?
    4. What's the significance of play in the poem? Why is having fun so central to the poem's theme of youth and the discovery of truth?

    Chew on This

    Since our speaker sounds like a kid, maybe having fun is the key to discovering the hidden truths that adult seriousness often overlooks.

    The ocean is not just a postcard backdrop here; it's a magical world of adventure. "maggie and milly and molly and may" shows us that having a young and curious spirit is essential to discovering not only oneself but also the larger world.

  • Exploration

    Take a step out in nature every day and each time you're bound to discover something new. That impulse to explore and discover is central to "maggie and milly and molly and may." Sometimes people lose that impulse in the business of everyday life, but our speaker reminds us that, if we just have fun now and then, we too might find something we weren't necessarily looking for. That lack of intent, in favor of playfulness, opens the door to new ideas and adventures while also shedding some light into who we are as individuals.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. What's the best way to explore, according to the speaker? What's the difference between exploring with grim determination and exploring with a more playful attitude?
    2. How does loss relate to the poem's theme of exploration? If we lose one thing, what might we also find in the absence of that thing?
    3. Who would make a better explorer: a kid or an adult? Why do you think so? How would the speaker answer this question?
    4. How does each line break between stanzas help to support the poem's theme of exploration? What do you think is happening in those spaces between each character's experience?

    Chew on This

    Listen up, fuddy-duddies. The poem's playful mood suggests that maybe the adult explorers of the world can learn something from these girls.

    Curiosity is essential to any exploration in the poem, especially since it seems to open the doors of imagination, which makes any discovery all the more fulfilling and insightful.

  • Man and the Natural World

    The theme might say "man" and the natural world, but really we mean to say people, more specifically, kids and the natural world. It's all related, in other words. No matter if you're a man, kid, woman, whatevs, the natural world is going to show you something about yourself if you give it a chance. In "maggie and milly and molly and may," the ocean is a kind of mirror that folks can look into and discover deeper truths that you just can't find at a desk. There are no pretexts, no masks in nature. Everything has a real purpose with real meaning, and when you take a second to sink your toes in the sand, your mind has a way of doing the deep thinking for you.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Why is it usually easier for kids to learn from the natural world than it is for adults? What are adults doing wrong? How might the speaker answer this question?
    2. What does the speaker really mean when he says we always find ourselves in the sea? Why does the sea have such illuminating power?
    3. How is the man-made world reflected in each of the character's experiences with the natural world? What does each character learn from nature in every scenario?
    4. Why is nature both beautiful and frightening at the same time in this poem? What can the girls learn about life from observing both sides of the natural world?

    Chew on This

    By exploring all sides of nature—not just the pretty, friendly bits—the girls learn that the world is way more complicated than just being happy or sad all of the time.

    Whenever we want to learn something about ourselves, all we really have to do is take a look at how nature works, just like the girls did in Cummings's poem. (And no, turning on the Discovery Channel doesn't count.)