Here the speaker of the poem introduces the four characters. Notice how the repetition of the “m” sound in each of the girls’ names gives this line a musical quality, like a melody, and makes it sound like a nursery rhyme. Such repetition of consonant sounds at the beginnings of words is called alliteration and serves to create among each of the alliterated words an especially musical relationship. In essence, each of the girls’ names shares this “m” quality, and it is implied, at least on some level, that each of the girls is the same or similar. The names blend together and do not distinguish themselves from one another, and each girl’s character and personality is similarly undistinguished. cummings commonly took liberties with basic stylistic conventions and does so here with each of the characters’ names, which he does not capitalize. Capitalization is traditionally used to denote proper names and to signify respect for the individual, it is arguable that by not capitalizing names here cummings is suggesting that each character is not wholly an individual. Nevertheless, the rest of the poem, as the reader will see, serves to distinguish each of the characters from one another and to give the reader a clearer picture of how they are each individual and unique.
This line then sets the scene. The reader is told that all four of the characters have gone to the beach ostensibly to “play.” Notice how cummings uses parentheses to set apart “to play one day.” Parentheses traditionally serve to set apart information that is not vital to the central meaning of a sentence, and in this sense the speaker of the poem is telling the reader that the reasons why the girls went is not particularly important. More important, when one notes that the word “day” rhymes with “may” in the first line, one might argue that the parentheses serve to separate this ornament from the more important thematic material of the poem. In other words, the parentheses point out that the end of this line serves only to complete the poetic structure and that, in a sense, this poetic structure is not particularly important. This is important when one recognizes how the poem diverges almost completely from this rhyme scheme in later stanzas.
Here the reader learns that one of the characters, maggie, finds a shell while she is playing. As is done with shells, she places it to her ear and hears the sound it makes, the sound of the ocean. This sound is so pleasingly musical that she becomes engrossed and forgets herself and all her worries and “troubles.” Notice how the word “troubles” does not rhyme with “sang” and thus disrupts the rhyme scheme begun in the couplet. The reader expects the speaker to tell him/her that maggie was so taken with the shell’s song that “she couldn’t remember her name.” This would at least create a slant rhyme between “sang” and “name.” Instead, having set up in the reader an expectation as to how the poem will play out, cummings diverges from the expected in order to upset the reader’s sense of order. One expects the poem to continue its nursery-rhyme-like rhyme scheme, but instead cummings undercuts this expectation with impunity. One gets “troubles.” The effect is that maggie, as an individual, is characterized not by her “name” but by her concerns and worries, by what she cares about. What these worries might concern is left unsaid, but what one learns is that “playing” for maggie means getting away from such concerns and being enveloped in the sensory experience of the ocean and the beach: it means losing herself.
This couplet depicts the second character, milly, and describes what she finds while playing. Note that she “befriends” the star, presumably a starfish “stranded” on the beach at low tide. In other words, play for milly consists of finding and/or building friendships. In this case, however, the friend she finds, the star, has “five languid fingers.” Languid means inert or sluggish or spiritless or lifeless, and it is implied that milly has struck up a friendship with a spiritless, lifeless creature. This then is presumably less than ideal, or at the very least one-sided. One could argue even that this suggests how desperate milly is for friendship and say that she herself is, in this sense, “languid.” That is to say she is somehow lifeless or incapable of creating a friendship with something that is itself alive. Note how the slant rhyme of “star” and “were,” brings the poem back to the original rhyme scheme begun in the stanza. As well, these lines follow exactly the pattern established in the first stanza: the first line of the couplet consisting of three anapests with an extra single stressed syllable at the end of the line, and the second line consisting of an iamb followed by an anapest followed by two more iambs. In this sense cummings reintroduces the nursery rhyme quality of the poem.
In this couplet one sees the third character, molly, and learns that unlike the other two characters described so far, she has found neither solace in music or a friend, but rather has found a “horrible thing,” a sort of monster. That it races “sideways” and blows “bubbles” suggest it is most likely some kind of crab, but more important is the fact that it “chases” her away. This crab calls to mind the spider in the nursery rhyme about Miss Muffett. Like her, molly is frightened away by what is essentially a harmless creature. In other words, it is not the crab which menaces molly, but rather her fear of it, this unknown, unnamed thing. In this sense, the “horrible thing,” symbolizes the unknown and molly’s response to it embodies a particular world view in which the unknown is something to be feared and avoided. For molly, play is defined according to what it is not for her. In other words, for molly play does not include encountering new things or ideas, for when she does, she runs away. Note how the meter and rhyme of the poem once again diverge from the expectations the reader has for nursery rhymes. The effect here is to cast a sort of darkness over the scene. The light-hearted rhythm gives way to something more grinding and full of anxiety and worry. As well, despite the obvious “-ing” rhyme of “blowing” and “thing,” the end-line rhyme scheme is disrupted with the addition of “bubbles: and” in line 8, once again downplaying the poem’s nursery rhyme feel.
In this couplet, one finally sees the last of the four characters, may, and learns what she has found while playing on the beach. Unlike the other characters, who are all described as they are seen on the beach (with the things they discover), may, the reader is told, takes her “smooth round stone” home. This suggests that her experience is somehow more lasting, that it is somehow more important and worthwhile. And yet what she has found is merely a stone. Line 10 suggests, however, that this stone is more important than it may first appear. Indeed, it is “as small as a world and as large as alone.” What does this line mean? One explanation is that cummings is making an allusion to the commonly known metaphysical conceit which says that one can see the world in a grain of sand. In other words, the most minute thing is significant and is a world unto itself. Similarly, the last half of line 10 celebrates being alone and suggests that while humans tend to be extremely gregarious beings and tend therefore to think of “being alone” as a negative circumstance, “being alone” has its value. Ultimately these lines suggest that may recognizes the value and worth of an otherwise common stone. If this stone is reflective of may’s personality, of her character, then one might conclude that she is extremely perceptive, slightly intellectual, and possesses a definite sense of self-worth.
These lines assert the central theme or message the speaker would have the reader take from this poem. Simply put, these lines build upon the examples given in the previous stanzas and conclude that “it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.” Line 11 is particularly interesting because it suggests that even if one loses oneself, one is also discovering oneself. In other words, the poem’s message is two-sided. First it suggests that whatever one finds at “the sea” or in the world is somehow symbolic of who one is. That is to say that one’s personality and preconceptions will determine how one views what one finds and in what light one looks upon it. For example, molly is frightened by a harmless crab. This would seem to imply that she is a timid person full of fear. If she weren’t, she might simply look upon this unknown creature as a curiosity. On the other hand, the poem is also suggesting that while one might lose one’s sense of identity when one encounters new experiences in the world, the sum of that experience is who that person is. In other words, what one finds will eventually become a part of who one is, a part of one’s memory and experience. In this sense, every experience one has makes one into a different person than one was before he/she had those experiences; one simultaneously loses a self and gains a new self. That is to say, one is constantly evolving and developing as an individual, and one’s experiences inform who one is and how one interacts with and views the world around oneself.
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.