The Centaur By May Swenson
“The Centaur” is one of the most popular and anthologized poems by May Swenson. In the poem, the poet re-creates the joy of riding a stick horse through the summer of a small town. We find ourselves, with her, straddling “a long limber horse with . . . a few leaves for a tail,” and running through the beautiful dust along the course of the old canal. As her form shifts from child to horse and back, we know exactly what she feels like.
The title ‘‘The Centaur’’ refers to a creature from Greek mythology that was a half-human and half horse and lived in a region called Pelion in Magnesia, a coastal region in Central Greece. Centaurs symbolize masculinity, and are supposed to be brave, loyal warrioris. Interestingly, other than in the title, the term is not used anywhere in the poem. Rather than write about centaurs, Swenson’s aim is to depict a metaphorical centaur, a girl who thinks she is part horse.
STANZA WISE SUMMARY OF THE POEM
The poem starts with an adult speaker reminiscent of her youth, the summer when she was 10 years old. There’s a wonder in her voice right away because she can hardly believe there was just one summer like that. This attitude of wonder is typical of Swenson ‘s poetry; so is her questioning,
inquiring approach to life indicated grammatically by casting the main part of the first stanza as a question. Another grammatical feature of the opening stanza is that it is largely a parenthetical aside; it is as if the speaker, or the poet, is so full of information and so alive to the connections that it can hardly start in one direction without wanting to go in another, perhaps a bit like a wayward horse.
Stanza 2 completes the parenthetical aside about there being only one summer when the speaker was ten. Of course, a literal-minded person would say, how could there be more than one summer for any year? However, Swenson and her speaker are poets; they say apparently impossible things
to get at deeper truths, in this case, the fact that the summer in question seemed very long. It must have been a long one, she says, which again literally makes no sense; summers are always the same length. This is a poem about feelings, though, and that summer felt long to the speaker, or perhaps she means that there were more summers like it. What should be noted is that the tone is not tumultuous; this is not a complaint that the summer has been dragging on and on; it is a memory of a delightful time. Here is an aspect of pastoral idyllicity — a portrayal of a simpler, ideal time. The tone of the opening gives a positive attitude to the events of that summer before the speaker even says what they were.
The second and third lines of the second stanza start to recount what happened to her. The speaker was ten in the summer. She says she’s going to choose a different horse from her stable every day. The reader who stopped at the end of this stanza — and the stanza break supports such a stop — may have assumed that the speaker was rich, with a stable full of real horses to choose from. However, the absence of punctuation at the end of the stanza, the running of the sentence from one stanza to the next, means that the reader can certainly continue to do so without stopping.
The speaker reveals in stanza 3 that there were no real horses; she was not the child of wealthy horse owners; in fact, her stable was a grove of willow trees down near an old canal. Paul Crumbley, writing in Body My House, notes that this was the actual channel near Swenson’s childhood home. It brings out the autobiographical element of the poem, but in the poem, the canal’s oldness combined with the fact that the young girl had to go out to it suggests a journey that could turn out to be magical in some way, away from every day to somewhere.
The stanza ends with the speaker saying she ‘d go to the grove in barefoot. The fact that she was going barefoot indicates a change, in this case with her clothes and shoes away from civilization and into nature with its lack of artificial coverings. That’s possibly the key message this sentence conveys at first reading, but in retrospect, the reader could note that the speaker stresses that she walked on her own two feet; the assertion is somewhat strange, because who else might the girl’s feet have gone on with? The reader soon discovers who may have been involved with the feet of another.
The first word in stanza four shows some contrast to the statement immediately preceding that the girl went down on her own feet to the canal. However, it will be a few more stanzas before the point of the contrast is made clear; meanwhile, the reader is left wondering why a contrast was set up as the speaker plunges into a parenthetical clause about using the knife of her brother to cut a horse. If it wasn’t already clear, the reader learns here that the horses are only branches from the willow trees. At least this is the natural assumption of the reader, although the speaker does not actually say that they are branches; she simply says that she cut herself a horse, making a kind of metaphor, except that this is less a metaphorical way of describing a branch as a horse than a little girl who thought, or pretended to think, that her branch was a horse.
Stanza 5 goes into more detail about how the girl can transform her branch of the willow into a horse. Swenson has frequently been praised for her attention to detail and here she describes the branch peeling and the leaves arranged for a tail. The speaker also notes that she used the belt of her brother (again something of her brother’s) to gird around the branch, to tighten, to keep control. There are both wildness and control elements in it. Traditionally, rationality and passions have been metaphorically represented as a rider and his horse, with the rider needing to keep his horse under control, just as rationality was expected in a human being to keep the passions under control.
Stanza 6 carries on the notion of control by suggesting that the belt was supposed to act as a rein when tightened around the neck, but the speaker finishes by saying that as soon as she speaks of making her horse take up a modest gallop as if control had been lost and the main point is to give up on adventure.
In this stanza, the speaker says she ‘d trot in the dust which she describes as lovely by using the word. It is not clear why dust would be lovely, but maybe it is because it is part of nature and the purpose here is to escape into nature. In this stanza, the reader also begins to understand why the orator ‘s feet are emphasized by the sentence that started in stanza 4, and that is still going on. The speaker in this stanza describes how the dust hid her toes and covered the hoofs of her horse. She arrived on two feet but now she’s riding on four hoofs; a transformation is underway.
Stanza 8 finishes the thought about the horse’s hoofs, which are referred to as feet here. Perhaps this indicates that the transformation from human to horse is not complete. There is also another possibility. Swenson is often seen as a poet who describes blending, and the poem seems to display some blending between human and animal.
In this stanza, the transformation from human to horse, or the blending of human and horse, continues. The willow knob, the speaker says, was part of the saddle and part of the horse’s head. At the same time, she says her head and her neck were her own, and there the stanza ends; like most of the stanzas, it ends in mid-sentence.
In stanza 10, the sentence continues with another contrast. Although the speaker said in the previous stanza that her head and neck were her own, now she says that at the same time they were like a horse, and her hair was like a horse’s mane, blowing in the wind. This could be considered a simile, but it is more a statement of transformation. The speaker remembers that as a girl when she went out on her willow branch she began to feel like a horse.
Horse imagery continues in this stanza, with the speaker using the word forelock, a term for hair usually used only in connection with horses. Also, she describes herself as snorting and performing other actions that a horse might do.
Stanza 12 continues the detailed description of the girl as a horse, but then there is a pronoun shift. She suddenly switches to the first-person plural we. It appears that now she is both girl and horse, understood as two separate identities that are nonetheless one.
Here the speaker explicitly declares the merging of identities between horse and rider that was implied in the previous stanza. It is less that she becomes transformed from human to horse than that she conjures up an imaginary horse and partly becomes him while yet remaining herself. She is both the magical imaginary creature and the ordinary person riding the creature, so when she smacks his rear, she is also hitting her own behind, as she says at the start of the next stanza.
The speaker finishes the thought about how slapping the horse’s rear means hitting herself and begins the next sentence with a word that is a highly appropriate term to describe what is happening; she has become double – she is both herself and another.
Stanza 15 explores the doubleness of the situation. The speaker says that she was both the one with the bit in her mouth, in other words, the horse being controlled by a rider, and yet at the same time the rider herself, sitting on her steed.
Stanza 16 provides more detail about how she was the rider, pressing her legs around the horse’s ribs, standing in the stirrups. The end of the sentence marks the end of the stanza. Instead of ending the stanza in mid-sentence and so carrying the reader on to the next stanza, as she has done in most of the previous stanzas, Swenson here orders a stop, marking the end of a section of the poem.
Stanza 17 marks a change in tone. A calmness descends after the wild galloping, the snorting, the riding in the wind. Now the pace slows, literally, to a walk, as the speaker describes how she would return to her house, riding slowly up to the porch and tying her horse to the fence: an odd image, because she would have been tying one piece of wood to another.
The wild ride is over; in a way, the reader only realizes its wildness retrospectively because of the contrasting calm introduced by this stanza. Now it is time to go back inside. The speaker describes how she would dismount, rearranging her skirt, a symbolic way of saying she was adjusting herself for domestic life again if the skirt is interpreted to stand for all of domestic life.
In this stanza the speaker describes how she would go inside, into a gloomy, dark hall, implying a contrast with the way things were outside in what presumably was bright sunshine, though she never mentioned that. It is an implied retrospective description through contrast.
The contrast continues in the last two lines of the stanza; she would walk on clean linoleum, leaving footprints, suggesting that indoors it is not only gloomy but sterile, as if the outdoors was much more alive. The ghostliness of her footprints seem to suggest a fading away, into a ghost, of her barefoot adventuring self, now to be replaced by a more conventional indoor self. Using the word ghostly to describe the footprints also suggests that her barefoot self had some magical or supernatural aspects.
Stanza 18 having ended with a period, marking another break, stanza 19 introduces a new character, the speaker’s mother, who promptly asks the girl where she has been, a typical maternal question. This is not like the musing, wondering question of the opening stanza, posed by the nostalgic speaker remembering a magical time with fondness. This is the voice of authority, of the established order, trying to bring a wayward child back into line.
The child answers with what might be considered the truth, saying she was riding, though of course, it was just a fantasy ride. That the ride and the fantasy are over, and that life must now return to normality is indicated by her getting a glass of water from the sink (not the place a horse would go for water).
In stanza 20 the mother asks the second of three questions she will put to her daughter, asking what the girl has in her pocket. Again, this sounds like the voice of authority noting something wrong, posing a question that is full of interrogation rather than wonder. Interestingly, the girl answers that it is her knife, not her brother’s knife, which it actually is. It is as if she has appropriated something as if perhaps she has not completely returned to the normality of her role as a proper little girl. As if to reinforce this point, she says that the weight of the knife in her pocket has stretched her dress; here again, a piece of clothing is used symbolically. By using her brother’s knife and going out on a wild ride the girl has become something other than a normal little girl.
The final stanza begins with the mother giving an order to the girl to tie her hair back. The reader may remember that the girl’s hair has been flying in the wind like a horse’s mane at the climax of her ride; now she is to tie it down, restore order, come back home. Then in one of the oddest moments in the poem, the mother asks her final question, wanting to know why the girl’s mouth is green.
The girl’s answer is that Rob Roy, presumably the name she has given to her imaginary horse, has been eating clover in the field. This would mean that since she was the horse and since her mouth is green now, she was chewing on the grass herself. It is a final statement of how she blended with her imaginary horse, becoming a horse briefly, even bringing home the evidence.
Jean Gould, writing in Modern American
Women Poets notes that the final stanza is the only four-line stanza in the whole poem. Paul Crumbley, in Body My House, sees a rhyming couplet at the end, which emphasizes the last point of the poem, when the girl tells her mother this strange story about Rob Roy eating clover and thus causing her own mouth to turn green.
Crumbley argues that this indicates acceptance by the mother, and perhaps it does, though her reply is not given and Swenson herself, discussing this poem in an interview reprinted in Made with Words, says that in the closing stanzas the mother is scolding the girl. However, the exchange does perhaps indicate that the girl felt confident enough to tell her fantasy as if trying to bring the magic home and communicate what she had been able to imagine.
Finally, it is worth noting that the name the girl gives to the horse is Rob Roy, a common name for a horse, but also the name of an eighteenth-century Scottish hero and outlaw. This suggests that her adventure was of the outlaw kind or at least one that pushed the limits of propriety knife to do what might conventionally be seen as a boy’s task: cutting a branch from a tree to serve
as her horse. She also takes her brother’s belt to use as the reins on her ‘‘horse.’’ Moreover, in the 1950s, some might have seen the riding adventure as too wild for a girl, bringing out her tomboyish side. In the end, the girl calls the knife her own as if she has appropriated this symbol of boyhood, which has stretched her dress, disordering the symbol of girlhood.
The end of the poem brings out some antagonism between the girl and her mother, with the mother intent on making sure her daughter is ladylike while the daughter wants to talk about her fantasy adventure. In a way, it is a depiction of childhood rebellion against parental authority, or perhaps more an attempt by the parental authority to rein in an overly exuberant child who is impatient with conventional rules and roles.
Analysis of the poem
In the myths of the Greeks, through their green Grecian fields roamed a creature called Centaur. It was both man and horse simultaneously. A beast with the head and torso of a human and the body of a horse. Two creatures existed as one in this being—and so it is in May Swenson’s whimsical poem, the tale of a girl who pretends she is a horse and becomes a horse in her mind.
Within the rhythmic, pounding syllables of this piece, all the imagination of a child is captured.
A girl often is transformed into a horse; she is both horse and rider; she returns to herself. Swenson achieves a suspension of disbelief in her reader—just as when reading the mythology of the Greeks, one finds oneself believing in these supernatural transformations.
A centaur cannot exist, yet while reading this poem we forget that mundane fact and believe that one can—we can even recall our own childhoods, perhaps memories of galloping and neighing and romping as ponies in the backyard. Swenson achieves this ascent into the reality of the imaginary and back again through her language, imagery, structure, and point of view.
Perhaps most basic to an understanding of the poem is its language. The words are not complex—they are simple and stated in a matter-of-fact tone, much like a ten-year-old tomboyish girl would speak.
The words are primarily referring to horses and to physical descriptions and feelings–in this way we identify with the physical manifestation of the horse in this girl. The poem begins with an older voice— “Can it be there was only one / summer that I was ten?”—a doubting voice of an adult. It immediately lapses into the voice and language of one much younger. She uses a
tough voice—a don’t-mess-with-me voice, one of a child growing up in the country, where there is dirt and land and space, and her own resources for her entertainment. “I had cut m a long limber horse,” she says, adopting the rough language of a cowboy, a pioneer. In addition, she relates herself to her brother repeatedly, using his jack-knife and belt for her horse, trappings which girls would not have. The words used are physical words—tactile, sometimes sensual, even sexual in connotation.
The horse is “fresh,” a “long limber horse.” Alliteration is used to achieve a sense of liquidity. Then suddenly, the words: “good thick knob,” three words which create a density, an actual thickness in the throat when spoken. Again the words are physical: “peeled him,” “straddle and canter, ” “talcumed.” Many “d” and “k” words are used, contributing to the headiness of the experience for this girl. She feels powerful, transformed beyond every day in this experience. Words such as “nickering” and “skittered,” “quivered,” “reared,” are all very tactile words to say, reminiscent of the heaviness of the horses clomping, click-clacking footsteps, and the thickness and parched feeling in one’s throat after riding.
Many words are verbs— “arched, snorted, wheeled, twanged,” a continual running list of verbs, all in the past, all heavy words with a sense of slow gracefulness about them—they aren’t perky words but very earthy, dirty, physical words just like the centaurs who were lumbering yet graceful beasts, somehow not quite beautiful enough because of their strange combination of men and beast. Through these physical words, Swenson achieves the sense of a complete transformation of the girl into the horse—where once the “willow knob with the strap / [jounced] between my thighs” (a sexual connotation, relating to the sense of physical empowerment the girl feels) she later feels “my thighs hugging his ribs.” She is actually riding a horse now, yet she also is the horse— “The leather slapped to his rump / spanked my own behind” and “my hair flopped to the side / like the mane of a horse in the wind.”
The very physical imagery along with the sexual hints, add to the sense of transformation – parts of the body are referred to again and again such as feet, head, neck, thighs. Riding a horse has always been seen as a sensual image—here, the addition of phallic symbols such as a knife, a stick, add to this.
This is a girl undergoing a physical transformation—a sensual experience perhaps altering her and taking her away from her own world.
The rhythm of the lines is steady, as the gait of a horse—it is only in the end that rhyme occurs with the last two lines, a rhyming couplet. This is where the experience of this girl as a horse culminates—she tells her mother that her mouth is green because the horse stopped to eat some clover. Although she is now a small girl again, she still retains this sense of herself as animal, as one who identifies with the horse.
Perhaps to this girl, she will always have the horse within her, always be both things—girl and horse, horse and rides simultaneously. For the wonderful, but serious, extent of this poem we are allowed to experience it with her thanks to Swenson’s use of language, imagery, structure and point of view.