Sample Poem Analysis: The Structure of May Swenson’s “The Centaur”

Jun 28, 2020

May Swenson’s poem “The Centaur” is a poem that explores the power of the imagination while also echoing the cry of women’s rights movements in the 90s. “The Centaur” is told from the point of view of a girl or woman who recounts the summer when she was 10 years old. The narrator takes the reader through her morning, from waking up to going out to play. The narrator’s play involves extensive use of the imagination as she pretends that a branch is a horse. Then, towards the end of the poem, she becomes a horse herself. In this essay, I will analyze the poem “The Centaur,” and discuss how Swenson uses language, imagery, and enjambments to demonstrate the extent of a girl’s imagination as well as how it is often curtailed by society’s expectations of women.

Swenson uses language to characterize the narrator in the poem. In the first three lines, it is clear that the narrator has grown up, and is simply reminiscing on the summer when she was ten. In the second stanza, the narrator enters her dream world where she rides her horse. Throughout the poem, the language demonstrates the youthfulness of the narrator. This is evident in her use of the word “spank” in line 40. 

Swenson allows the reader to experience the freedom of a ten-year-old girl through her use of the literary device called imagery. The imagery is strong as she feels the wind and the horse’s movements as it runs. More interestingly, however, the language makes it easy to follow the narrator even as she imagines herself turning into a centaur:

“[m]y 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.”

Likewise, it was easy to follow her return to reality:

“[d]ismounting, I smoothed my skirt // and entered the dusky hall. / My feet on the clean linoleum / Left ghostly toes in the hall.”

Despite the poem’s youthfulness and innocence, Swenson’s imagery of nature and the horse is suggestive of the narrator’s desire for freedom. The horse is usually used to signify freedom of the soul. Horses are often portrayed as wild and always following their instincts. In the poem, the girl first rides the horse and feels the exhilarating feeling of freedom. Almost as quickly, the girl becomes the horse, which signifies to the reader that the girl is free, too. Indeed, at that moment, she was free. By creating this imagery in the poem, Swenson echoes the feminist argument that women are disproportionately oppressed by society’s standards. Society hinders women from being free and exploring the world, and from achieving their full potential.

The last five stanzas affirm this. As the girl returns to her home, she exits her world and returns to a society where she is expected to be neat. Upon dismounting her horse, she smooths her skirt (51), then she is questioned about her whereabouts implying that she was expected at home (55), then her mother notices the irregularity in her pocket (58), and finally, she is asked to tie her hair (61), and about the mess around her mouth (62).  

“The Centaur” is structured in stanzas of three lines, except for the last one which has four lines. The most distinguishable feature of the poem is its use of enjambment. The enjambments in the poem supplement the language in the girl’s world-building. The enjambments mimic the speed of riding a horse. Thus, it allows the reader to feel the excitement of riding a horse and the freedom from becoming a horse. For example: 

“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. 

Doubled, my two hoofs beat

a gallop along the bank,”

As the girl exits her dream world and arrives at her house, the use of enjambment also stops. In stanza 18, the girl enters her house. This same stanza ends with a complete sentence (“My feet on the clean linoleum / left ghostly toes in the hall.”). The succeeding stanzas all follow the same structure of starting and ending with complete sentences (“ What’s that in your pocket? She said. ………. and stretched my dress awry.”) —signifying the end of the dream and excitement. Through the use of enjambments, Swenson teleports the reader into the world of a ten-year-old girl and made them experience the thrill of having an uninhibited imagination. At the same time, the contrast in the absence of enjambments at the end of the poem brought to the center the kind of life society forces upon women.

May Swenson’s “The Centaur” is well-known for its simplicity and innocence. However, these characteristics are the result of Swenson’s clever use of poetic devices. Through her use of simple but clear language, she brought the reader into the perspective of a ten-year-old girl. The imagery of the horse, which seemed like a part of the girl’s innocent daydream, paints women’s desire and fight for equality and true freedom. Lastly, the enjambments add to the thrill of riding a horse (and being a horse) but also highlights the contrast between the girl’s dream world and her desires from her reality. As is demonstrated by this literary review essay , May Swenson’s “The Centaur” may appear to be written for children, but it is a poem that many women can relate to well into their adulthood because of the constraints imposed on them by society. One can even say this is one of the poems that every college student must read.


Swenson, May, "The Centaur" (2007). All USU Press Publications. 97.

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