Critics seemed unable to pigeonhole e. e. cummings. He was a man of many moods—some caustic and full of ridicule, others quiet and contemplative. The themes of his poetry were just as likely to be influenced by politics and social affairs as by sexuality and love. But one recurring theme that cummings seems to have always come back to, from the beginning of his career to the end, was his search for self. And in his search, his poetry appears to have been most heavily influenced by the philosophy of transcendentalism.
It was during the 1940s, says Norman Friedman in his essay “E. E. Cummings and His Critics,” that critics started to take cummings’s poetry more seriously, recognizing that cummings had begun to state a more definite view of life in his poetry, and they could see that his “main issue [was] metaphysical.” Critics during this time were “beginning to see the central transcendental vision in cummings’ work.” This does not mean that cummings did not have transcendental leanings before this time, but only that his critics were beginning to appreciate his poetry more; they were able to see past cummings’s unusual attempts at defying the standard rules of grammar, punctuation, and syntax. They were starting to get over their dislike of cummings’s literary hijinks (as one critic called them) and were finding deeper meanings hidden in cummings’s words.
In the 1950s, when 95 Poems (the collection that included the poem “maggie and milly and molly and may”) was published, critics became even more excited about cummings’s work, now stating that his view of life, as displayed in his poetry, not only encompassed transcendentalism but also mysticism. It was as if cummings’s had moved up another rung of the ladder. He became more legitimate, not just a “romantic individualist,” says Friedman, but a mature poet. In particular, the poem “maggie and milly and molly and may,” says Friedman in another essay in e. e. cummings, The Growth of a Writer, revealed not only a “developed sense of how the transcendental world is involved in the ordinary world” but also that cummings had secured a “grasp of poetic style and technique.” So even though there still remained a lot of controversy about cummings’s poetry, there was a consensus of critical opinion that cummings had tapped a transcendental root. But what is transcendentalism? And how is it reflected in cummings’s poetry?
One dictionary definition of transcendental is: an adjective that describes something that is beyond ordinary or common experience. But the term transcendentalism became popular in the eighteenth century due to German philosopher Immanuel Kant who believed that the mind contained very important ideas that were not learned by the senses through experience but rather were innate in every human being. He believed that every human was born with an all-encompassing knowledge that was contained, in what Kant called transcendental form, in the human faculty referred to as intuition. From then on in popular culture, things related to intuition were referred to as transcendental.
But it was in the nineteenth century in America that the philosophical and literary movement referred to as transcendentalism was created. The most prominent authors associated with this movement were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Begun as a reform movement in the Unitarian Church, transcendentalism stressed the dwelling of God (in the form of inspiration or intuition) in everyone. In addition, the soul of each individual was believed to be identical with the soul of the world. It contained everything that the world contained. Taking this belief to a deeper level, transcendentalists believed that every natural fact was a symbol of some spiritual fact. They believed that children were possibly more intuitive than adults because culture had a tendency to corrupt people, as they grew older. Intuition or insight was held superior to both logical thought and experience in regard to the revelation of the deepest truths.
Transcendentalists also believed that the external world and the interior world of humans were one and the same. What is outside first exists inside human beings in their intuition. But sometimes people are not aware of this intuitive knowledge and must be reminded of it. And that is where nature comes in. Nature is a living mystery, full of symbolic signs that humans can read. With this concept, the transcendentalists believed that knowing oneself and studying nature were the same thing. Nature mirrored human psyche. “All that you call the world is the shadow of that substance which you are,” wrote Emerson in his essay “The Transcendentalist.”
A deeper interpretation of cummings’s “maggie and milly and molly and may” can be easily missed because the poem is very short and is written in a rather uncomplicated couplet form with simple rhyming patterns. But with an understanding of transcendental philosophy in mind, cummings’s poem takes on deeper meaning. Because of the brevity of the poem, it might be interesting to reinforce the transcendental elements of the poem by comparing cummings’s work with another piece of literature that was published in the same time period. Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea is a collection of essays that expresses a theme similar to cummings’s poem and was published in 1955 (some years before the 1958 publication of cummings’s collection of poems that contains “maggie and milly and molly and may”). Lindbergh wrote the essays while vacationing at the beach, and she uses the nature that she finds there for self-reflection.
Cummings begins “maggie and milly and molly and may” with straightforward writing: four young girls go down to the beach one day to play. This first couplet paints a lovely picture using very uncomplicated words. The image of four young girls playing along the shore on a warm summer morning is a gentle image to conjure in one’s imagination. The fact that these four young girls all have names beginning with the letter m could be seen, at first, as a cute way to begin a poem, making the poem read almost like a nursery rhyme. The names are fun to say, one after the other as the sounds skip over the tongue just as the girls might have skipped across the sandy shore. But the chances of four young friends (or even four young siblings) having such repetitive-sounding names might make the more-than-casual reader a little suspicious. The emphasis on the letter m might give a clue that cummings is suggesting something—possibly substituting individual names for the pronoun me. This is, after all, a poem about self-discovery. “For Cummings,” writes Robert E. Wegner in The Poetry and Prose of E. E. Cummings, “self-discovery was supremely important and the only valid motive for writing a poem.”
Lindbergh begins her book Gift from the Sea in a similar way. The first chapter is a short, simple explanation about her setting: where she is, why she is there, and what she hopes to find there. The setting is, of course, the beach, and she is looking for answers in the form of self-reflection.
Back to cummings poem, the second couplet introduces maggie. “Maggie,” says Rushworth M. Kidder in E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry, is the “ ‘sweetly’ troubled one.” If cummings is talking through maggie, looking at himself through her eyes, he is saying that when he is troubled, he turns to nature, as transcendentalists do, to find consolation. Maggie not only finds nature, she also finds art in the form of music. The shell sings to her. It is through the shell and its song that maggie (or cummings) loses the troubles of self. And it is in the losing, cummings later states in the last couplet, that one finds oneself.
In the second chapter of her book, Lindbergh also finds a shell. It is an empty shell that has been abandoned twice—once by the snail-like creature that created the shell, and then by a hermit crab that used it as temporary housing. It is through this abandoned shell that Lindbergh realizes that she, too, has abandoned her shell: her roles as mother and wife. She, like maggie in cummings’s poem, has brought her troubles to the sea, but the shell is reminding her to abandon them, if only for this week of vacation, in order that she might reconnect with herself.
Milly is next to be spotlighted in cummings’s poem. “Milly, ‘languid’ and friendly,” says Kidder, “takes pity on a ‘stranded’ starfish.” Here there is the possibility that cummings is saying that sometimes he feels stranded and alone. The “languid” fingers of the starfish could be his own hand that might sometimes seem incapable of writing another poem. Through milly and the starfish, cummings might see that self-discovery requires making friends with oneself. He could be looking at the five-fingered ray as an objective part of himself— the public part, the man as opposed to the artist. And he might be feeling that one part has been stranded from the other. As Wegner states in his analysis of cummings’s play called Him, “the artist is the man; the man is the artist. Neither, by himself, could achieve individuality and recognition of self, for the artist without the man would be sterile and lifeless, and the man without the artist would misinterpret what he perceives.” This also goes back to the transcendentalist’s premise that what is inside and what is outside work together, one feeding the other in an attempt to create a balanced life. Wegner goes further in his statement: “Without the qualifying temperament of the artist, the man would have little resistance to stereotyped beliefs. With the artist and his inner recognition of truth, beauty, and harmony, the man through his senses perceives the manifestations of these in the world around him, and learns to distinguish between what is genuine and what is sham and hypocrisy.”
In the third chapter of her book, Lindbergh writes about having found a moon shell. This shell, by its name, reminds Lindbergh of solitude. As the moon is alone, so are all individuals alone in their journey toward self-discovery. By reflecting on the shell she comes to appreciate her solitude. It is in solitude that the artist meditates and creates. And it is through those meditations and creations that the artist befriends herself and then, just as milly befriends the starfish, the artist is capable of befriending others.
Now molly, in the fourth couplet in cummings’s poem, is “chased by a horrible thing” and realizes her fears as she is frightened by a strange looking crab walking sideways. Molly most definitely represents the nightmares in cummings’s life, or possibly just the challenges that he must face in searching for self-identity. Cummings might be saying that looking into the mirror of self-reflection is not always pleasant. There are parts of oneself that are not always comfortable to look at. And these uncomfortable parts are one’s fears.
Lindbergh faces fears at the beach also. She talks about relationships and how they work after her sister comes to share one day with her. She watches as they perform a kind of silent dance throughout the day, knowing each other so perfectly that they do not intrude into one another’s silences, do not bump into one another as they prepare their meals in a tiny kitchen. She also talks about what destroys relationships. And that is fear. “It is fear . . . that makes one cling nostalgically to the last moment or clutch greedily toward the next.” Clinging and clutching are, coincidentally, strangely familiar tactics of molly’s crab.
In cummings’s poem, “May is the dreamer,” states Kidder, “who in her ‘smooth round stone’ comes upon a symbol resisting simple categorization . . . this poem suggests the two sides of loneliness: ‘alone’ is a quality that looms large in may’s experience, yet, being large, it is hardly a confining and stiffling place.” These thoughts come from the fifth couplet of cummings’s poem where may discovers that the stone she has found is “as small as a world and as large as alone.” Cummings deals with the concept of loneliness in many of his poems. In looking at loneliness, cummings has often stated that there were two sides to being alone. One was loneliness, but the other was the contemplative state from which creation is borne. Immediately following his statement about may and her discoveries about loneliness, cummings starts the last couplet with the word for, which in this case stands for the word because. As if to explain the reasons for being alone, cummings ends this poem with his thematic statement.
One of the first sentences in the last chapter of Lindbergh’s book starts with the words: “the search for outward simplicity, for inner integrity . . .” As if to emphasize the transcendental nature of her own words (which links this collection of essays to cummings’s poem), Lindbergh looks out across the beach and the sea and finds the simplicity that she knows she needs to bring inside of her in order to find unity and peace. “We are now ready for a true appreciation of the value of the here and the now and the individual,” she continues. “They are the drops that make up the stream. They are the essence of life itself. When we start at the center of ourselves, we discover something worthwhile extending toward the periphery of the circle.” It is the individual that transcendentalists celebrate—the individual with the indwelling god, the individual with all knowledge contained, the individual for whom Nature provides symbolic answers. Or as cummings sums it up: “For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) / it’s always ourselves we find in 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.
Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on “maggie and milly and molly and may,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.