The title ‘‘The Centaur’’ refers to a creature from Greek mythology that was half human and half horse. 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.
The poem begins with an adult speaker reminiscing about her childhood, about the summer when she was ten. Right away there is wonder in her voice because she can hardly believe there was only one such summer. 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 connections that she 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 grumbling; this is not a complaint that the summer dragged on and on; it is a memory of a delightful time. There is an aspect of pastoral idyll here—a depiction of a simpler, ideal time. The tone of the opening establishes a positive attitude towards the events of that summer before the speaker even says what they were.
The second and third lines of the second stanza begin to recount what happened the summer the speaker was ten. She says that she would go each day to choose a different horse from her stable. A reader who stopped at the end of this stanza—and the stanza break does encourage such a stop—might think the speaker was wealthy, with a stable full of real horses to choose from. However, the lack of punctuation at the end of the stanza, the running on of the sentence from this stanza to the next, means that the reader will no doubt carry on without stopping.
In stanza 3, the speaker reveals that there were no real horses; she was not the child of wealthy horse owners; her stable was actually a grove of willow trees down near an old canal. Paul Crumbley, writing in Body My House, notes that this was the actual canal near where Swenson lived as a child. This brings out the autobiographical aspect of the poem, but in the poem, the oldness of the canal coupled with the fact that the young girl had to go out to it suggests a movement away from the everyday to someplace that may turn out to be magical in some way.
The stanza ends with the speaker saying she would go barefoot to the grove. The fact that she was going barefoot suggests a movement, in this case away from society with its clothes and shoes and into nature with its lack of artificial coverings. That is probably the main sense that this sentence conveys on first reading, but in retrospect the reader might note that the speaker emphasizes that she walked on her own two feet; the statement is somewhat odd, for who else’s feet might the girl have gone on? The reader soon learns who else’s feet might have been involved.
The first word in stanza 4 indicates some contrast with the immediately preceding statement that the girl went down to the canal on her own feet. However, it will be a few more stanzas before the point of the contrast is made clear; in the meantime the reader is left wondering why a contrast has been set up while the speaker plunges into a parenthetic clause about using her brother’s knife to cut herself a horse. Here the reader learns, if it was not already clear, that the horses are just branches from the willow trees. At least, that is the reader’s natural assumption, though the speaker does not actually say they are branches; she simply says that she cut herself a horse, making a sort of metaphor, except that this is less a metaphorical way of describing a branch as a horse than an account of 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 would transform her willow branch into a horse. Swenson was often praised for her attention to detail, and here she describes the peeling of the branch and the leaves arranged for a tail. The speaker also notes that she used her brother’s belt (again something of her brother’s) to gird around the branch, tightening, maintaining control. There are elements of both wildness and control. Traditionally, reason and the passions have been depicted metaphorically as a rider and his horse, with the rider needing to keep his horse under control, just as reason in a human being was expected to keep the passions under control.
Stanza 6 continues the notion of control by explaining that the belt, when tightened around the branch, was meant to function as a rein, but the speaker no sooner finishes saying that than she talks of making her horse take up a moderate gallop, as if control had been forgotten and the main point is to give in to adventure.
In this stanza the speaker says she would trot in the dust, which she describes by use of the word lovely. Why dust should be lovely is not clear, but perhaps it is because it is part of nature, and the idea here is to escape into nature.
In this stanza the reader also begins to understand why the sentence that began in stanza 4, and which is still going on, emphasizes the feet of the speaker. In this stanza the speaker describes how the dust hid her toes and covered her horse’s hoofs. Though she arrived on two feet, she is now 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 seems 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.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, May Swenson, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009