“Maggie and milly and molly and may” is written in the tone and style of a nursery rhyme and is marked by both its skillful use of alliteration and its complex end-line and internal rhymes.
Nursery rhymes do not all share a single poetic form or meter, but they are generally marked by their use of end-line rhyme and for their bouncy rhythms. In “maggie and milly and molly and may” these traditional elements serve to heighten the memorable quality of the poem and also to lend tension to the piece. Strictly speaking, the poem does not duplicate the rhythmic pattern expected in nursery rhymes. Instead, the first couplet sets up an expectation in the reader’s mind. The reader expects the poem to continue in this vein, to continue using end-line stressed rhyme and the lines to continue being metrically symmetrical. Instead, cummings takes liberties with both rhythm and rhyme, in order to keep the reader slightly on edge.
The first couplet is written in dactyls, anapests and iambs. Each of these three is a kind of metric foot: a metric foot is a unit of measure to describe a measured pattern in verse. A given type of metric foot (in English verse) is distinguished by a fixed combination of accented and unnaccented syllables. A dactylic foot consists of three syllables, with the stress on the first syllable and the second two syllables unstressed. An anapestic foot consists also of three syllables, but the first two syllables are unstressed and the last is stressed. An iambic foot consists of two syllables, with the first syllable unstressed and second stressed.
mag gie and / mil lie and mol ly and / may / went
down / to the beach / to play / one day
These lines exhibit all the qualities of nursery rhyme verse, including the jingly rhythm created by the three syllable feet, and the stressed end-line rhyme of “may” and “day.” In contrast, the second stanza breaks with this pattern of rhythm and rhyme:
and mag gie / dis cov ered / a shell that / sang / so
sweet ly / she could n’t / re mem ber / her trou bles
Notice how these metrical feet disrupt the pattern begun in the first couplet, and how the poem diverges from the end-line rhyme scheme. Instead of dactyls, one suddenly gets amphibrachs, three syllable feet in which the second syllable is stressed and the other two are unstressed. Notice as well how the poem diverges from the rhyme scheme begun in the first stanza. Where one might expect the word “name” to complete the rhyme, one gets “troubles.” In this manner, cummings dismisses one’s expectations and forces the reader to adjust to the unexpected. This is a particularly interesting strategy when one realizes that thematically the poem is essentially about how one’s expectations affect how one views the world.
Finally, cummings makes masterful use of alliteration and slant rhyme in this poem. Alliteration refers to repetitions of consonant sounds at the beginnings of words within a line. For example, if one looks at the first line of the poem, one sees that the “m’s” in each of the girls’ names are alliterative and give a musical quality to the poem, which contributes to its nursery rhyme feel. Slant rhyme refers to rhymes that are not perfect rhymes (such as white/bite) but are instead partial rhymes, as “star” and “were” are in the third stanza of this poem. Slant rhyme in this poem serves to undercut the nursery rhyme flavor of the poem while not breaking completely with rhyme altogether.
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.