The poem “maggie and milly and molly and may” represents one of e. e. cummings’s experiments with rhymed couplets. True to his disregard for formal rules of writing, cummings does not rhyme every couplet in this poem. It is also a perfect and, on the surface, simplistic expression of his belief that the outer self is a reflection of the inner self.
Identity and Self
The characters represented in this poem, maggie, milly, molly, and may, could very well stand for four young girls. However, it would be a strange coincidence to have four young girls come together who had such similar names. The fact that all the names begin with the letter m could be a clue that these girls each symbolize an aspect of me. In other words, each represents an aspect of the self, a subject that cummings often reflects on.
Whether the characters are looked at individually or as aspects of the self, the main theme of the poem is a search for the self or identity. Each young girl, or each aspect of the self, is marked by different characteristics. Each one finds something at the sea that is quite unlike what the others find. Also, each experience is unique and, thus, each lesson learned is very personal.
Maggie, in the second couplet, discovers a shell that sings. The music that she hears is so sweet that “she couldn’t remember her troubles.” Maggie is the thinker, the contemplative one, the one who ponders the troubles of the world (much like cummings). She carries her thoughts around with her, and they have become a burden. But at the sea, she is reminded that art, in this case music, helps one to forget one’s worries, temporarily transporting the self to a place beyond the ordinary. Or to look at it in another way, art (or music) brings one back to the purest state of self, to the uncontaminated present where worries of the past do not exist and troubles of the future are not yet discovered.
In the third couplet, there is milly, who befriends a “stranded star.” Milly is the sensitive one, the one tuned in to the needs of others. She gives a helping hand to someone in need, in this case a starfish. Through the aspect of milly, cummings might be saying that one finds oneself through helping others. Taken on a more personal level, as a reflection on self, cummings might also be saying that when one feels stranded, one need only look as far as one’s own hands for help. The clue to this thought can be found in the word languid which means relaxed (or limp) but can also mean lazy.
Next comes molly who “was chased by a horrible thing.” Molly is the innocent one (the word chased sounding very similar to the word chaste). She is naive concerning the ways of the world, unfamiliar with the unusual. She is both frightened and fascinated by horrible things, as she also notices that this crab is “blowing bubbles”—a joyful, childhood pastime. The fact that molly thinks the crab is horrible based merely on its appearance and manner of walking “sideways,” attests to molly’s easily aroused prejudices for things that do not fit into her narrow definitions of beauty and pleasantness.
May comes home, in the fifth couplet, with a “smooth round stone” in which she finds a complexity. May is a dreamer, a person who can imagine things that are not always visible to the ordinary way of thinking. In the stone that she brings home, she finds that the world is small but in spite of this she, like the stone, feels quite alone. Like cummings, who often had disdain for ordinary thinking, molly realizes that not everyone thinks like she does. Not everyone treasures a small, round stone enough to bring it home from the sea as a souvenir. Not everyone comprehends that one finds one’s identity in the things that are found outside of one self. Then, to make sure that the reader understands that this is exactly what cummings is trying to say, he states these sentiments in the last couplet.
“For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) / it’s always ourselves we find in the sea,” are the last lines of this poem, a perfectly rhyming couplet. Also in these lines are the first mention of a “you or a me,” the first time the poet steps away from the young girls and brings the poem home to the speaker as well as the reader, uniting them both in the search for a more universal self, the step that follows the definition of the more ordinary and individual identity.
The cummings collection called 95 Poems, from which this particular poem was taken, has been referred to as a collection that continues along the lines of the Transcendental tradition. Transcendentalism was a nineteen-century movement of writers, most of them living in New England, who believed in the power of insight or intuition, often regarding them with greater respect than the intellect or rational mind. It is through intuition, the Transcendentalists believed, that the deepest truths about human nature were revealed.
Highly individualist people such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman are examples of writers who were attracted to this philosophy. Many reviewers of cummings’s work have included him in this group.
Transcendentalism celebrates the belief that all the knowledge that a person needs in life is inherent, residing inside of them until experience brings the remembering of this knowledge to the conscious mind. There is also a great respect for the organic or natural world as opposed to the manmade or synthetic world. These beliefs are reflected in his poem “maggie and milly and molly and may” in the way that cummings uses the natural world (the beach, starfish, shells, crabs, and stones) as triggers that stimulate reflection. The self-knowledge of the young girls is already known to them. But the memory of that knowledge and the awareness of themselves is reinforced when they reflect upon the things and the experiences that they find at the sea.
Jennifer Smith and Elizabeth Thomason, Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 12, e. e. cummings, Published by Gale Group, 2001.