Poetic Analysis of ‘The Centaur’ by M. Swenson


The summer that I was ten—
Can it be there was only one
summer that I was ten? It must

have been a long one then—
each day I’d go out to choose                   5
a fresh horse from my stable

which was a willow grove
down by the old canal.
I’d go on my two bare feet.

          But when, with my brother’s jack-knife,         10
I had cut me a long limber horse
with a good thick knob for a head,

and peeled him slick and clean
except a few leaves for the tail,
and cinched my brother’s belt                   15

around his head for a rein,
I’d straddle and canter him fast
up the grass bank to the path,

trot along in the lovely dust
that talcumed over his hoofs,                   20
hiding my toes, and turning

his feet to swift half-moons.
The willow knob with the strap
jouncing between my thighs

                 was the pommel and yet the poll                 25
of my nickering pony’s head.
My head and my neck were mine,

yet they were shaped like a horse.
My hair flopped to the side
like the mane of a horse in the wind.           30

My forelock swung in my eyes,
my neck arched and I snorted.
I shied and skittered and reared,

stopped and raised my knees,
pawed at the ground and quivered.               35
My teeth bared as we wheeled

and swished through the dust again.
I was the horse and the rider,
and the leather I slapped to his rump

                       spanked my own behind.                          40
Doubled, my two hoofs beat
a gallop along the bank,

the wind twanged in my mane,
my mouth squared to the bit.
And yet I sat on my steed                       45

quiet, negligent riding,
my toes standing the stirrups,
my thighs hugging his ribs.

At a walk we drew up to the porch.
I tethered him to a paling.                    50
Dismounting, I smoothed my skirt

and entered the dusky hall.
My feet on the clean linoleum
left ghostly toes in the hall.

                Where have you been? said my mother.            55
Been riding, I said from the sink,
and filled me a glass of water.

What’s that in your pocket? she said.
Just my knife. It weighted my pocket
and stretched my dress awry.                    60

Go tie back your hair, said my mother,
and Why is your mouth all green?
Rob Roy, he pulled some clover
as we crossed the field, I told her.

May Swenson expressed her perspective on women’s rights during the 1990’s in her poem The Centaur, which stated that not only was there a sense of longing for more freedom for women in standards of living such as interests and appearance but also a feeling of being forced to conform back to the stereotypical characteristics of women when back in society. Swenson was able to reveal the meaning to the audience through language, imagery, structure, and point of view.

The language of the poem is simple in diction and style so that in a literal sense, the audience is able to easily comprehend the poem. The effect of using such simple language puts an emphasis on the content of the poem and manipulates the audience to consider what the meaning of the poem is. And so Swenson created a situation where the audience is more prepared to understand the poem. In addition, the use of past tense throughout The Centaur creates a sense of nostalgia.

Then throughout The Centaur, Swenson brings up horse imagery, where the speaker “[chose] a fresh horse from [her] stable” (line 6) which in fact was a “willow grove down by the…canal” (line 7-8). This example of horse imagery along with the other ones that refer to the speaker being the “horse and the rider” (line 38) convey Swenson’s belief that when women are alone and isolated form the rest of society, they are equal to men in wants and privileges in every aspect of life including manners and hobbies. This reference to the horse is made because the horse is usually symbolized as freedom of the soul or spirit because horses, like the wild mustang, are free to roam wherever they desire to and live however they want to. And so, by referring to the speaker as a horse, Swenson creates this idea that when not oppressed by society’s standards, women are equal to men in freedom of rights in life.

In the start of the poem, Swenson portrays the speaker as a ten year old who desires to be free and is newborn to the cruel standards of society. By using this type of beginning, Swenson creates a sense of hope that this girl will become free to live her life like “a horse” (line 28). However as the poem came to a close, the girl exits her ‘free world’ and enters the cruel bubble of society and is immediately faced with the overpowering standards of society, which is symbolized as her mother. This symbolization is shown through the blunt and harsh commentary about her daughter’s standards of living where the girl should “go tie…[her] hair” (line 61). This structure also invokes a sense of a passing of time, as a woman gets older she is less likely to enter her ‘free world’ and is manipulated by society to fit into being the stereotypical woman. Though Swenson creates this mood in order to inform society of women’s true desires and the inability to fulfill them because of society, by saying the girl’s “mouth [is] full of green” (line 62) and that it was because of “clover” (line 63), Swenson is implying that by consuming this luck or hope that women will eventually gain this freedom of life.

Therefore in The Centaur by May Swenson, the meaning of the poem that women are longing for freedom in living life however they want to but are stopped by society in doing so, is conveyed through the simple language, horse imagery, chronological structure, and nostalgic point of view throughout the poem.

May Swenson is well-known as one of the most important and original poets of the 20th century that consistently wrote for women’s rights and equality for all. Do you agree with her perspective on gender equality? If not, why and how is gender equality not necessary in having a more successful society?

What do you think?


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