The poem “The Centaur” by May Swenson is a beautifully written narrative poem told through the eyes of a woman looking back to her childhood.
In the poem Swenson uses such elements as language, imagery, structure, and point of view to aid in conveying the message of the poem.
The title “The Centaur” refers to a half-human and half-horse creature from Greek mythology. Interestingly, the term is not used anywhere in the poem other than in the title. Instead of writing about centaurs, Swenson ‘s intent is to portray a metaphorical centaur, a girl who thinks she’s part horse.
Within May Swenson’s The Centaur, there is a social message conveyed through the games of a young girl. The language and imagery employed by the poet is intricately woven with an element of mystery and surprise to develop a strong statement about the power of women and their expectations in society.
Indeed, a feeling of mystery and surprise is prevalent in this work. First, the poet’s use of three-line stanzas plays a large role in this quality of the work. Lines 6 and 7 demonstrate this well: A fresh horse from my stable / which was a willow grove.Here, Swenson leads the reader to assume that the child is actually choosing a horse to ride, only to discover that she is carving a play horse because the stable is a grove from which to obtain lumber to make this toy. Later in the poem the poet uses this surprise technique when she relays, Dismunting, I smoothed my skirt (L 51). Certainly, many readers had expected that the child was a boy up to that point. That makes this piece very important.
Swenson is trying to break through conventional traditions. By surprising the reader, she expresses the attitudes of society. Moreover, she disagrees with these attitudes and would like to change them. One can observe the girl s comments to her mother: Where have you been? said my mother / Been riding (L 55 56). Swenson is not defensive nor does she make a big deal out of the child s activities. Indeed, playing with knives and pretending to be a rough-rider is completely normal to the girl, and should be for society.
However, a much stronger statement exists in the work in addition to the seeming message . The metaphor comparing the girl with a horse and making her one with the horse is extremely significant. Swenson maintains I was the horse and the rider (L 38). A horse is a very strong and powerful animal respected throughout literature for its strength and capacity to work. By making this comparison with the girl, the poet assigns these same attributes to women, hence, making a powerful statement about the females’ abilities and expectations.
In addition to the power conveyed through this horse metaphor, is Swenson’s wish for freedom. She describes herself as the wind twanged in my mane (L 43). These flowing images of the wind indicate freedom the desire to fly away. However, following this is, My mouth squared to the bit (L. 44). The idea of the bit indicates confinement of this powerful female spirit. One imagines the horse who would love to run wild but is kept by his master to ride and work as he is directed. This feeling is carried out further by the poet at the end of this poem.
In the end, the mother wants her daughter to tie her hair back to conform to society s expectations of what a little girl should act like. Clearly, the girl s nature is not like this and The Centaur shows this repeatedly. There is some hope offered, however, in the use of the word clover: Rob Roy, he pulled some clover / as we crossed the field (L 63 64). The clover seems to indicate luck as in a four-leafed clover. It seems that with some luck and perseverance like Swenson s, women will cross that field into an acceptance of their true powerful nature and role in the world.
Symbols and Allusion
The figurative and literal language of the poem shows and describes a ten-year-old girl playing. Swenson uses the Greek mythological creature, the Centaur, as a symbol of the girl pretending to ride the horse. A centaur is a half-man half-horse creature. It’s neck and head is human while the body is that of a horse. In describing the girl riding her Stick pony, Swenson makes it seem as though the girl herself is a Centaur.
In words and phrases like: “my hair flopped to the side like the mane of a horse”, “I shied and skittered and reared”, and “my two hoofs beat a gallop along the bank. All f these add to the allusion Swenson makes to the Centaur.
Swenson also uses similes like “my head and neck were mine, yet they were shaped like a horse.” and also metaphors like “I was the horse and the rider” to help create the relationship between the child at play and the Centaur.
Swenson also uses imagery to help describe the girl at play. Swenson uses images to appeal to all one’s senses. She appeals to the sense of touch with lines like “peeled him slick and clean”, “spanked my own behind”, “the wind twanged in my mane”, “my feet on clean linoleum”, and “I smoothed my skirt. The poem appeals to the sense of taste when the girl tries to eat the clover. It also appeals to sight and the sense of hearing through such phrases as “a willow grove”, “up the grass bank to the path”, “my nickering pony’s head”, and “I shied and skittered and reared”. The images enable the reader to see the young girl at play.
Swenson also uses the structure and point of view to help convey the meaning of the poem. The poem is set up in stanzas of three lines each except for the last stanza which has four. The rhythm flows from one stanza to the next and creates a light-hearted feeling. Also, the point of view is that of an adult reliving the summer when she was ten. It seems almost childlike in nature and creates the feelings a ten-year-old might feel when playing.
Swenson uses all of these elements to convey her timeless theme of the importance of one’s youth. She shows us the magic of youth and the importance of one’s imagination as