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The Centaur

When you were little, did you wish you were older? Now, do you ever wish you were a kid again? May Swenson (1913-1989) examines the freedom of her childhood in the poem "The Centaur" (1956). A whimsical poem about a child pretending a stick is a horse, "The Centaur" examines childhood innocence and imagination. But the seemingly simple poem is actually a commentary on gender roles and social expectations forced on young girls as they age.

"The Centaur" At a Glance

Written By

May Swenson

Publication Date

1956

Form

Lyric poem, free verse

Meter

Inconsistent

Rhyme Scheme

Inconsistent

Poetic Devices

Allusion

Symbolism

Simile

Enjambment

Onomatopoeia

Frequently noted imagery

Willow grove

Old canal

Bare feet

Long limber horse

Good thick knob for a head

Trotting along in the lovely dust

Nickering pony

Mane of a horse in the wind

Leather slapping horse's rump

Clean linoleum

Mouth all green

Tone

Nostalgic

Key themes

Innocence of childhood

Freedom from social expectations/gender roles

Meaning

Women long for the freedom they experienced in childhood, where they weren't as inhibited by society's expectations and as rigid gender roles.

"The Centaur" Poem by May Swenson

"The Centaur" was first published in the Western Review in 1956, and it was reprinted in A Cage of Spines, Swenson's second collection of poetry, two years later. According to an interview that Swenson gave, the poem was inspired directly by her experiences as a child growing up in Utah.

Swenson was born in 1913 in Logan, Utah. Her parents were strict Mormons and Swedish immigrants. She grew up in the faith and spoke only Swedish, but everything changed when she entered school. She quickly adopted English in school and fell away from Mormonism in her early teens. According to Swenson scholar Gudrun Grabher, poetry became Swenson's new religion.¹

Although she moved from Utah to New York City shortly after graduating college, Swenson always felt a connection to her hometown. Her family moved to a new house in Logan when she was nine, which is thought to be the setting of "The Centaur." Swenson's connection to the home of her childhood was so strong that she asked to be buried in Logan after her death.

"The Centaur" Poem: Summary

The speaker reflects on the freedom and innocence of her childhood during the summer that she was ten years old. Every day she would go to her "stable" (6), which was actually a willow grove, and get herself a horse. The horse was a branch that she would cut with her brother's knife, leaving only a few leaves to resemble the tail and a knob at the other end for the horse's head.

The horse and girl would canter and trot all over the yard. She imagined that her head and neck had transformed into the shape of the horse and that she was both "the horse and the rider" (38). Their merged essence would separate only when the girl got back to the house and went inside for the night. When her mother asked what she was doing she simply responded, "been riding" (56). And when her mother asked why her mouth was all green, the speaker told her that Rob Roy, her horse, was eating grass in the field.

"The Centaur" Structure

"The Centaur" is written in free verse without a consistent rhyme scheme. Some lines, like the "ten" of line one and the "then" of line four, rhyme, but generally, the poem is free-flowing. This mirrors the carefree, unburdened nature of childhood.

The poem mostly alternates between iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter. This consistent change in the meter reflects the plodding trot of a horse as each hoof hits the ground. There are a few variations in the meter, as the horse canters or stops to chew on some grass.

There are 21 stanzas in the poem, and each consists of three lines. Although the poem's meter is relatively unstructured, the set number of lines in each stanza is a reminder that even the freedom of childhood will eventually be tamed by society.

"The Centaur" analysis

Symbolism and simile are the main literary devices that drive the poem. The speaker also uses allusion, onomatopoeia, and enjambment to hint more subtly at the themes.

Allusion

Allusion begins in the title of "The Centaur." Centaurs are not real beings but creatures of Greek mythology. They are said to have a human upper body from the waist up and the lower body of a horse. Centaurs are wild, untamable creatures that give in to their primal desires. The speaker referring to herself as a horse depicts that the girl felt uninhibited, carefree, and wild when she was a child.

The Centaur, male centaur in grass, StudySmarter

The title is an allusion to the wild centaurs in Greek mythology, pixabay

The speaker's horse's name is also a notable allusion. She calls him Rob Roy, who was a famous Scottish outlaw and bandit that lived from 1671 to 1734. He had a reputation as a Scottish Robin Hood. After James Graham, the 1st Duke of Montrose cost Rob Roy his home; Rob Roy waged a blood feud with Montrose. He stole his cattle and robbed the duke regularly. This allusion again reinforces the idea that the girl craves freedom and excitement, which was often allowed of boys but not girls in the early 1900s.

Symbolism

One of the major themes in the poem is the desire to be free of social expectations and gender roles. This is shown in the symbolism behind traditionally feminine and masculine objects: the girl's dress and her brother's jack-knife.

The girl loves playing with her brother's knife, which she refers to as "my knife" (59) in the second-to-last stanza. But knives and really all violent objects were considered masculine objects. Women, who were dainty and fragile, were typically kept away from knives and guns and instead pushed towards sewing, embroidery, or childcare. It is her brother's knife that allows the speaker to carry out her childhood fantasies, showing that the young girl is trapped by traditional gender rules.

The Centaur, Open pocketknife, StudySmarter

The speaker uses a jack-knife as a symbol of masculinity, unsplash

She cares much less about her dress, which the knife stretches "awry" (60). Dresses have long been a symbol of femininity and tenderness. For years, dresses have been depicted as purely feminine clothing. Everyone from queens to peasant women wore dresses. The fact that the speaker seems uninterested in keeping hers clean and orderly reinforces the idea that she does not want to be confined by society's expectations of her as a woman.

Simile

Simile occurs during the girl's imagined transformation into a horse. She says,

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." (27-30)

This shows the power of the speaker's imagination and her desire for freedom. Horses aren't restricted by any social expectations of them. No gender roles or social pressures keep them from living life to the fullest. The young girl desires the same kind of life, free from the restrictions placed on her because of her gender.

Enjambment

Enjambment keeps the pace of the poem flowy and light. Because thoughts don't stop at the end of a line, enjambment pushes the poem forward. Consider the use of enjambment in the second and third stanzas:

each day I'd go out to choose

a fresh horse from my stable

which was a willow grove

down by the old canal." (5-8)

The first three lines are open and unrestricted by punctuation. Once again, this reflects the girl's freedom when she is a horse.

Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia is used to make the poem actually sound like the noises a horse and rider make. Consider the word "skittered" (33), which sounds like a horse taking off at a gallop. The word "swished" in line 37 sounds like a horse's tail flicking back and forth as it runs. "Spanked" (40) sounds like the whipping of a horse to get it to run faster. In line 41, the "hoofs beat" calls to mind the sound of a trotting horse, plodding through the grass. And finally, "the wind twanged in my mane" (43) sounds like the blowing of a heavy wind.

"The Centaur" Themes

The main themes in the poem are the innocence and imagination of childhood and freedom from social expectations and gender roles.

Innocence and Imagination of Childhood

The poem is overtly about the imagination of childhood. Most of the main action happens entirely in the girl's imagination. She creates the horse and imagines that she becomes a horse herself. The speaker recounts,

But when, with my brother's jack-knife,

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

around his head for a rein,

I'd straddle and canter him fast" (10-17)

Her ability to spend each day that summer imaging she is riding and becoming a horse speaks to her imagination. It also speaks to her innocence, as she is free to become whoever she wants, unburdened by the knowledge that comes with age. She is carefree and happy and can spend her time playing and enjoying her youth.

The Centaur, horse eating grass, StudySmarter

The poem is fueled by the speaker's imagination which allows her to imagine that a stick is a horse, unsplash

Freedom from Social Expectations/Gender Roles

The other theme is more subtle, but this second theme reveals the poem's meaning. As a young girl allowed to run around outside with her brother's knife, the speaker is mostly free from social expectations and gender roles.

The speaker isn't forced into the feminine position of a caregiver or homemaker. She isn't forced to take care of her siblings, help her mother with household chores, or read and embroider like other young girls in the early 1900s. The speaker is actually given more freedom than was typical of many women of the time.

But the fact that it is her brother's knife and not her own tells us that, to some extent, she is still limited by her society. Weapons, including knives, are traditionally seen as male-centered objects that women should not use. Weapons were thought to be too dangerous for dainty, weak females. The presence of social expectations and gender roles is especially pronounced in the last several stanzas of the poem:

My feet on the clean linoleum

left ghostly toes in the hall.

Where have you been? said my mother.

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.

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." (53-64)

The girl stands in stark contrast to the clean house and her mother. She is unlike the socially acceptable standard of women. The imagery of the distorted dress further exemplifies that she is different from the norm. When examining the use of gender roles and how the young speaker defies them, the poem is about how childhood is the only time women can experience freedom from social expectations.

The Centaur - Key takeaways

  • "The Centaur" is a lyric poem by May Swenson that was published in 1956.
  • The inspiration behind "The Centaur" was taken directly from Swenson's life.
  • In the poem, the girl imagines that a stick is a horse and that she becomes one with the horse as they ride.
  • The themes are the innocence and imagination of childhood and freedom from social expectations and gender roles.
  • The structure of the poem mirrors the freedom of the speaker's youth.

References

  1. Body My House: May Swenson's Work and Life, edited by Paul Crumbley and Patricia M. Gantt. Utah State University Press, 2006

Frequently Asked Questions about The Centaur

Women long for the freedom they experienced in childhood, where they weren't as inhibited by society's expectations and as rigid gender roles. 

The stable is a willow grove. 

The themes in "The Centaur" are innocence of childhood and imagination and freedom from social expectations/gender roles.

"The Centaur" is a free verse lyric poem.

Mary Swenson began working on "The Centaur" in 1954 and it was published in 1956. 

Final The Centaur Quiz

Question

Who wrote "The Centaur"?

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Answer

"The Centaur" was written by May Swenson. 

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Question

Who is the speaker in "The Centaur"? 

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Answer

A woman looking back on her childhood days

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Question

When was "The Centaur" published? 

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Answer

It was first published in 1956. 

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Question

What is the girl's horse? 

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Answer

A stick

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Question

What is the stable? 

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Answer

The stable is really just a willow grove.

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Question

What happens to the girl when she is riding her "horse"? 

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Answer

She and the horse merge to become one figure

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Question

What are the two symbols in the poem?  

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Answer

The girl's dress is a symbol of femininity and her brother's knife is a symbol of masculinity. 

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Question

What are the themes in the poem? 

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Answer

Innocence of childhood

Freedom from social expectations/gender roles

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Question

What happens at the end of the poem? 

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Answer

The girl goes home and when her mother asks why her mouth is green, she says that Rob Roy was eating grass. 

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Question

Who was Rob Roy and what was his function? 

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Answer

Rob Roy is the name of the girl's horse. He was a Scottish outlaw. The fact that the girl named her house after someone who fought against social expectations and propriety shows that she wants to do the same. 

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