The poem is written in free verse (a form of poetry in which no formal meter is used) without any rhyme scheme, though perhaps with a rhymed couplet at the end and some internal rhyme at the beginning, but it is not as free as in some of Swenson’s other poems. There is enjambment, meaning that sentences carry over from one stanza to another, creating a feeling of movement in the poem, but most lines end with the end of syntactic units; phrases generally are not broken over two lines, but come to an end when the lines end, so there is regularity as well as movement, order as well as wildness, reflecting the content of the poem.
Metaphors, Symbolism, and Synecdoche
‘‘The Centaur’’ might be said to contain metaphors, in which one thing is described in terms of another: the willow branch is a horse; the girl’s hair is a horse’s mane; and the girl snorts and paws the ground in a horse-like manner. However, these are not true metaphors used to describe the girl or the branch but signs of a transformation going on in which the branch becomes a horse, and the girl becomes a centaur. However, the whole poem can be seen as a metaphor for poetic creation.
The poem uses real objects such as the knife and the dress to symbolize larger things, in this case boyishness and girlishness. This could also be called synecdoche, in which a part of something, for instance the dress, stands for the whole of something, in this case female identity.
In the middle of the poem, Swenson carries the reader along for the ride, moving from the nearly stationary (the girl cutting the willow branch) to the beginnings of serious motion as the horse canters and trots. Her choice of words increases the sense of acceleration as she describes the horse’s feet as swift and has the girl’s hair blow in the wind. Then the rider and horse wheel and gallop. The words create a sense of speed, which suddenly stops as the rider and horse slow to a walk. Swenson’s control of the language enables her to make the reader feel part of the ride as it begins, gathers speed, then slows.
The poem might be seen as enacting the heroic quest, a story structure that is common in literature. In the poem, the hero, in this case the ten-year-old girl, leaves civilization, that is, her house, to venture into a magical realm, in this case the willow grove by the canal, where willow branches can change into horses. She takes part in a magical transformation, becoming a centaur, at least figuratively, getting so caught up in the fantasy that she even gets her mouth green, presumably by eating grass or at least miming the action of eating grass. Then she returns from her heroic adventure and brings news of it to the representative of everyday life, in this case her mother. It is true that she slays no dragons, since this is not a violent quest; however, it still contains elements of heroism, the courage to enter a zone of personal transformation.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, May Swenson, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009.