The poem is in part a nostalgic evocation of childhood and the sort of thing a child might get up to. This at least is how the poem opens, with the adult speaker remembering the summer when she was ten, but though the poem develops several contrasts, this contrast between present and past fades away, and at the end there is no return to the adult’s world and little sense of the adult looking back. In the opening stanzas the very tenses the speaker uses emphasize that she is looking back; she talks of what she would do each day in that distant summer: she would go down to the willow grove, she would ride her horse, and so on. But by the middle of the poem the speaker shifts to the simple past; her hair blew around like a mane; she shied and skittered, reared and galloped; and then she slowed to a walk and entered her house, at which point the conversation with her mother that ends the poem is presented as a specific scene that happened and then ended. There is no closing reminiscence, seeking to bring out a contrast between the adult of today and the child of the past; the nostalgia theme simply disappears.
A persistent theme in the poem is the exploration of gender roles. The girl takes up her brother’s 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. At 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 parental authority to rein in an overly exuberant child who is impatient with conventional rules and roles.
The poem is a celebration of the imagination, of the girl’s ability to conjure up a fantasy about riding a horse that engulfs her so much that she becomes the horse while at the same time remaining the rider. There are moments when she seems all horse, as when she says that she snorted and pawed at the ground, but at other times there is a doubled consciousness, with the girl being both the horse with the bit in her mouth and the rider on top of the horse. This double existence is eerily magical. It seems in some ways a metaphor for the act of poetic creation. Swenson herself made the comparison when talking of this poem in the interview reprinted in Made with Words, saying what the girl does in the poem is what an artist does in her art, becoming what she creates. The theme is thus the power of the imagination and the mystical nature of creation, in which a girl can half become the horse she creates just as a poet can half become her own poem. It seems in a way an illustration of the famous line from the poem ‘‘Among School Children’’ by W. B. Yeats, in which he asks how one can differentiate between the dancer and the dance that he or she dances. This doubleness or uncertainty seems central to Swenson’s poem, illustrating the process by which one enters almost completely into one’s creation and yet remains still apart, a conscious mind guiding the unconscious spirit.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, May Swenson, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009