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Analysis of Poem 'maggie and milly and molly and may' by E.E. Cummings

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

E.E. Cummings

E.E. Cummings

E.E. Cummings and a Summary of 'maggie and milly and molly and may'

'maggie and milly and molly and may' is, on the surface, a straightforward short poem about a group of girls who visit the beach one day, each of them experiencing what it means to play in their own unique way. It could even be a kind of nursery rhyme with the sing-song rhythm in some of the lines.

Dig a little deeper into this series of rhyming couplets, however, and a completely different picture emerges. There may still be four girls innocently playing on a beach (or are there?) but they're all subject to inner change because of what they discover on the sand.

  • So the basic theme of this poem is identity and how it evolves depending on experience. The beach becomes time - the sands of time - and the sea emotional depth, perhaps the unconscious, even eternity.
  • Using figurative language and poetical devices, along with a complex metrical pattern, the poet takes the reader into the lives of these four individuals via an object or 'thing' - a shell, a starfish, a crab and a stone - each one a catalyst for change.

And because the poet is E.E. Cummings, the form of the poem is experimental, the syntax irregular, the theme transcendental.

First published in 1958 in the book 95 Poems, this poem displays typical features that have become synonymous with the poet: lower case words, parentheses and lack of punctuation.

Always pushing the boundaries, cummings manages to capture so much in such a short poem, where the local and personal becomes the universal.

'maggie and milly and molly and may'

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's It About?

'maggie and molly and milly and may' breaks with convention from the very start, which is just the way Edward Estlin Cummings planned it. He, being an independent spirit, wanted exceptional things from his poetry and so created poems that were experimental, eccentric and challenging for the reader.

For example, this poem has lower case letters starting most of the lines, but note that line 11 differs - there's a capital F in For. Why use lower case in the first place? Well, it could be that the poet wanted the reader to know that this was an unconventional poem and so began with unconventional syntax (how the clauses and sentences and grammar are put together).

  • Taken literally, this poem is about four girls who come down to the beach to play. They discover certain objects and creatures, a shell, a starfish, a crab and a stone - which is fine until the reader reaches the last couplet and is confronted with a kind of universal truth concerning identity, the loss of and the gaining of.
  • It becomes apparent through closer examination that this is a poem of depth, both technically and aesthetically. And it manages to tweak the heart and mind of the reader whilst also being playful. Quite a feat.

Inspired by the rhythms and rhymes of nursery rhymes, this poem takes the reader into another dimension, one that transcends the literal and touches on the symbolic.

Stanza by Stanza Analysis

'maggie and molly and milly and may' is a playful poem it's true, and it may seem like a children's poem at first glance, but it also holds a wealth of poetic skill and a smidgeon of philosophical insight.

This poem is both a pleasure and a paradox; it delights the tongue because of its sinewy rhythms and delicious diction (language) but it can bamboozle the reader who may have to think twice before 'getting' the line.

  • Note also that the poem's tone is one of innocence and simplicity (the word and occurs 8 times), the speaker casually relaying the brief story of these four females who go down to the beach to play.
  • Yet this seeming innocence is offset by the folk wisdom shown by the speaker in lines 10, 11 and 12. This is someone who has pondered on the subject of symbolism and transcendence. Think of William Blake and his single grain of sand, which held all of the world.

Stanza 1

The opening lines are musical, full of rhythm and rise to meet the reader. Here are four females all with names that begin with m...mmmmm...not beyond coincidence? They went down to the beach - note the past tense - to play one day. innocent enough but why put this fact in parentheses?

Parentheses (brackets) are often used for information that is not so important. They hold the equivalent of an aside or a whispered suggestion or idea. So the reader is aware that these last four words are maybe not crucial to the plot BUT because a full rhyme is made between may/day the rhyme stands out even more!?

Stanza 2

On the beach maggie discovers a shell and puts it to her ear - haven't we all done this at some time? - to listen to the sea in musical form. Not only is the music sweet it sort of helps Maggie escape from her troubles; a kind of musical healing occurs.

The previous rhythms are disrupted in this stanza and the longer three-syllable words discovered and remember slow the action down (they're amphibrach words, with the stress on the middle syllable) as maggie goes through her sensory revelation.

So Maggie needs reassuring and calming down because she is the anxious one.

Stanza 3

Again, a different rhythm for the second female milly who is perhaps the loneliest for she shows affection to a creature that is perhaps beyond help already - a starfish. Note the reference to a star, the most distant thing humans are capable of detecting with the naked eye.

The implication is that milly is attempting to find a relationship with this creature, not only attempting but actually she does befriend it. This odd situation is eccentric enough but note the inverted syntax: whose rays five languid fingers were carried along on a nursery rhyme iambic tetrameter.

And milly needs companionship so that she can show empathy to others and not be as lonely.

Stanza 4

Next up is molly who is chased by what is probably a crab, which she finds a horrible thing because it doesn't run as it should and it certainly shouldn't be blowing bubbles as it runs.

Because this crab isn't named but only judged it's likely that molly is afraid of things she doesn't understand, she runs, is fearful and acts on her feelings. She attracts things that she fears. Note the chased/raced connection as the action takes place.

It's likely that molly has a dark emotional disturbance which causes her to scare easily and panic.

Stanza 5

The last of the four is may who takes home a stone, a symbol of things that last and which may be a kind of talisman. She wants to remember her time on the beach so takes with her a souvenir, a humble stone.

This penultimate stanza is the easiest to read rhythm-wise and word-wise and reflects may's sense of self, she is the one most at peace with herself.

Could it be that may is the contemplative one, able to see the whole big picture because she is so self-contained?

Stanza 6

Summing up, the speaker is suggesting that the beach is a place where we might discover new things about ourselves but that, because we are all unique individuals, this has to be done according to who we are.

So it is that each of the four in the poem uses different things - catalysts for change - what works for one might not work for another.

All the time throughout the poem there is the idea of the beach (sands of time) intimately related to the sea (the unconscious, the vast unknown) and that, as humans with complex psychologies we are all players.

Literary Devices Used

Figurative language features strongly in this poem. Let's look at some of the devices employed:


Alliterative language brings texture and interesting sound patterns to a poem, the matching consonants extending the challenge for the reader. Note:

maggie and molly and milly and may

sang/so sweetly

stranded star

five languid fingers

blowing bubbles

smooth round stone

whatever we


When the same vowels are close to each other in words, such as:

play one day

sweetly she


When one thing becomes another. Note:

whose rays five languid fingers were (the rays become the fingers)


When there is a repeat of the grammatical structure in one or multiple sentences. Note:

as small as a world and as large as alone


When one thing is like another. Note:

as small as a world and as large as a stone

Rhyme and Metre

'maggie and molly and milly and may' is a 12-line poem made up of six couplets, three of which end in full rhyme. On the page it looks quite formal, but the use of lower case words at the start signal that this is not a conventional creation.


The opening couplet has full end rhyme - may/day - which leads the reader to think that the following couplets may also end likewise, nice and tidy and familiar. But life is never that straightforward with a poet like cummings.

In the next couplet there is no full rhyme, just vowel rhyme - sang/and - and couplet three has pararhyme - star/were - whilst the next has no rhyme - thing/and - before the penultimate couplet returns to full rhyme with stone/alone.

Finally, everything is wrapped up in full rhyme - me/sea - and normal service is almost resumed.

Why the change in rhyming pattern? Well, it looks as if the poet is making a statement in connection with each of the girls' personalities. The rhymes reflect their wholeness as people so to speak. So maggie and milly have a long way to go, molly even further, whilst may is basically sound.

Internal Rhyme

In addition to the obvious end rhymes there is a lot going on inside the poem with full and near rhyme interacting. Note:






Inspired by nursery rhyme and reflecting the effects of sea waves, this poem has lines that positively sing, lilt and rise and fall. There is a varied metrical pattern, dominated by tetrameter but also including pentameter.

The first line is a dactylic tetrameter, that is, four feet each having two unstressed syllables and the last syllable stressed, so producing a rise and fall, like waves unfolding. The second line, of single-syllable words, four feet (tetrameter) is predominately iambic, one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed:

maggie and / milly and / molly and / may

went down / to the beach / (to play / one day)

and mag / gie discove / red a shell / that sang
so sweet / ly she could / n’t remem / ber her trouble / es, and

milly / befriend / ed a strand / ed star
whose rays / five lang / uid fing / ers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced / sideways / while blow / ing bubb / les: and

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

For whatev / er we lose / (like a you / or a me)
it’s al / ways ourselves / we find / in the sea

So this poem starts off with a dactylic foot, stress on the first syllable, and ends with the anapaestic, stress on the last syllable. And in between this metrical sandwich are the four couplets which vary in stress pattern - from the steady iambic tetrameter of line 6 to the erratic iambics (with spondees and trochees) of lines 8 and 9.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

100 Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

© 2018 Andrew Spacey