The poem is quite direct in its language. Readers are unlikely to get confused by events or turned around by the poet’s use of syntax. ‘Traveling through the Dark’ alludes to the nature of life and death and how choices surrounding both states of being are made. One is likely to walk away from this poem, contemplating what they would’ve done in the speaker’s situation.
Explore Traveling through the Dark
‘Traveling through the Dark’ by William Stafford is a short but effective poem about the death of a deer.
The speaker starts the poem by describing how he saw a deer on the side of the road and decided to stop and roll the body off and out of the way. This, he says, could save someone from losing their life. Before he can roll the deer into the river, he realizes that she’s pregnant and that the fawn is still alive. This makes him pause. He considers what he’s supposed to do in this scenario while the wilderness listens. He chooses to go ahead with his original plan and rolls her into the river.
You can read the full poem here.
Traveling through the dark I found a deer
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.
The first lines of this narrative poem begin with the speaker describing how they came upon a dead deer on the side of the road. Rather than drive past it, they decided to stop and roll it down into the canyon. The speaker suggests that this is the best practice when one finds “them.” Here, he’s alluding to the fact that he, or others he knows, have more than once been in this same situation. This gives the entire series of events a feeling of repetition and normalcy.
The reason that it’s important to roll their bodies off the road is that they might cause another accident, and another life might be lost.
By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.
The speaker continues to describe the scene, using imagery in order to help the reader better understand what they experienced in these moments. They noted how the tail lights of their car were the only lights they had to move by. They “stumbled” to the back of the car, suggesting that it’s quite dark out and there may be more things in the way. There, they encounter the dead doe who, although recently killed was already stiffening. The fourth line of this stanza reveals that the deer was pregnant when she was hit by a car. The speaker uses a euphemism, “large in the belly” to describe this fact.
My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.
The third stanza builds up tension with the speaker realizing that the fawn inside its mother is still alive, “never to be born.” This makes him hesitate as he prepares to roll her off the road. He wasn’t sure for a moment what the right choice was, to do something about the unborn fawn or continue with his mission.
The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.
The hesitation continues into the fourth stanza as the speaker analyzing his surroundings. He calls himself, the dead doe and her fawn, “our group.” He’s the only one who can think for them. Around him, he could “hear the wilderness listen,” waiting for his decision. Is he going to try to save the fawn in some way? Or is he going to roll the doe down the bank and condemn the unborn deer to death? The last line of this poem is a great example of personification. It suggests that something as broad and specific as the “wilderness” is capable of listening as a human being would.
then pushed her over the edge into the river.
He thought “hard for us all” in that moment and then continued with his original plan and pushed her over the edge into the river. He states this clearly and without further hesitation. Rather than spending time considering what he’s done, the poem ends there without further elaboration.
Structure and Form
‘Traveling through the Dark’ by William Stafford is a five-stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. This remains true throughout the entire poem until the final stanza, which has two lines, making it a couplet. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Despite this, the poem does have a kind of visual unity. The lines appear to be the same length, although they vary in the number of words and syllables they contain.
Throughout this poem, Stafford engages with several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “dark” and “deer” in the first line of the poem and “parking” and “purred” in lines one and two of the fourth stanza.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza as well as lines one and two of stanza three.
- Caesura: a pause in the middle of a line of verse. For example, “I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.” This can be created through the use of punctuation or through a natural pause in the meter.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly effective descriptions. For example, “she had stiffened already, almost cold” and “I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red.”
The tone is contemplative and descriptive. The speaker doesn’t imbue the lines with a great deal of emotion or passion. These are events that happened and that he’s now describing.
The purpose is to explore the way life and death decisions are made. In this case, on the side of the road in the middle of the night. The speaker contemplates his choice and then makes it. There is little fanfare and only a few lines of deliberation.
The poet uses numerous examples of imagery throughout this poem. It is best seen through his depictions of the light around the car and the lack of warmth coming from the deer.
The poet personifies the natural wilderness around his speaker while he tries to decide what to do about the dead deer and the fawn. This brief description is quite moving and interesting.
The themes at work in this poem include life/death and nature, and right/wrong. The speaker contends with all of these things within the short lines of the poem. He determines that the best thing he can do is move ahead with his decision to roll the deer off the bank.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Traveling through the Dark’ should also consider reading some of William Stafford poems. For example:
- ‘Cutting Loose’ – focuses on being positive in life, despite circumstances and events that might try to tear one down.
- ‘Our Story’ – describes a never ending love story featuring a couple who will always find their way back to one another.
- ‘At the Bomb Testing Site’ – describes moments in the desert before the testing of a nuclear bomb.