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Analysis of Poem "Traveling Through The Dark" by William Stafford

Updated on May 18, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

William Stafford
William Stafford | Source

William Stafford and Traveling Through The Dark

Traveling Through The Dark is a deceptively simple poem which records the actions of a driver who finds a deer, killed on the road by a previous car. This deer turns out to be pregnant and this fact plays on the mind of the helper, who wants to keep the road safe yet cannot stop thinking about the calf, still warm inside the mother.

William Stafford based his poem on an actual incident which he was involved in on the road in Oregon state one time. He used this experience to try and work out in the poem just exactly what his role should be.

In his own quiet and conversational way the poet takes the reader into the dark of the night, to the scene of the accident, and explains the situation in quite a straightforward manner. Surely the deer should be moved, rolled off the road and down into the river. That way, oncoming drivers won't have to swerve to avoid the deer, causing danger to themselves and others?

  • This is a poem with a major theme - that of Nature versus technology, modern life against the wilderness. It encourages the reader to think about their own position in the great scheme of things.

On the surface the poem is a traditional offering - four quatrains and a couplet - but delve deeper and there is much more to discover, as in many of William Stafford's poems.

Traveling Through The Dark

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

Analysis of Traveling Through The dark

Traveling Through The Dark is an 18 line poem, 5 stanzas, 4 of which are quatrains with a couplet at the end. There is no full rhyme, no rhyme scheme in fact and the meter (metre in UK) varies somewhat, with iambic pentameter popping up here and there, in lines 7, 10 and 14.

Half-rhymes occur (or near or slant) which help to glue the poem together but still leave room for hesitancy and a lack of harmony : road/dead/hesitated/red and canyon/reason and engine/listen and killing/waiting/swervin.

Alliteration occurs in line 4 with might make more.

There is also personification in the final quatrain when the car aims its parking lights.

Further Analysis Stanza by Stanza

So here is a poem that will set the reader thinking. It's not a particularly musical poem, or rhythmically inviting work - in fact there is a subtle counter flow in action as the middle two stanzas stumble and slow down, in contrast to the first and fourth and fifth, which are more fluid.

Stanza One

The speaker informs the reader that a dead deer has been found, in the dark, on a narrow country road. By all accounts this isn't the first time this has happened as the driver in a conversational manner says it is best to roll them down into the canyon, to make things safe.

Has he been this way before and found a run over animal? Or has he been made to swerve himself because of the negligence of others? Either way, he offers a matter of fact approach to this particular unfortunate creature's demise.

This is typical William Stafford, giving the reader some vital information, some advice, a bit of local wisdom. But as is the case with many a local issue, there is a universal point to be made.

The first line could be read as iambic pentameter, a traditional steady rhythm combined with simple, direct language.

Stanza Two

As a consequence of stopping the driver has to inspect the deer but isn't certain if he's done the right thing - he is clumsy in the dark - and the once lively deer is now only a heap of roadside detritus. Rigor mortis is setting in, the doe has been a good while on the ground and there is nothing to do but drag her off.

Note the language in this second quatrain - stumbled, heap, almost cold, dragged - it's as if the driver, the speaker, isn't too happy to be doing this, and is treating the animal the same way he would a sack of stones.

The last line however is the catalyst for what's to come. The large belly of the doe can mean only one thing.

More Analysis of Traveling Through The Dark

Stanza Three

Then comes the revelation - the deer is pregnant - the calf is inside and probably still alive. The emphasis is on the possibility within the word still.

  • the calf is dead, and will be stillborn.
  • the calf is very quiet.
  • the calf is still alive.

But the speaker is adamant that the calf will never see the light of day - stanza one confirms this fact - yet there is hesitation as the fate of that calf is held alone in the mind of the driver who cared enough to stop.

Stanza Four

The fourth quatrain concentrates on this break in time, the hesitation, which is profound and tempting. What will the speaker do, what will the driver do? What will happen next? Is the driver hesitating because he's thinking about a rescue? Will he open up the doe to check on her calf?

The car becomes a being, with red lights and exhaust, like a demonic breath, the driver turning red as he decides what to do. But he has already decided that the deer will end up in the canyon as is the local tradition.

The color red surely suggests the blood of the deceased deer, and the car is symbolic of technology. This is all happening in the dark, symbolic of a spiritual darkness? This may only be a small incident but the repercussions are vast.

This is an ethical dilemma - open up the doe to bring a new calf into the world, risk being hit by other cars. Or simply push the doe, the heap, down into the abyss.

The driver is listening to the wilderness listening, around our group, which includes himself, the car, the doe and the calf.

Stanza Five

The driver thinks hard for everyone, and the reader has to think hard too. The swerving is a momentary change of thought but in the end the driver does the one thing he knew he had to do from the moment he stopped for that deer.

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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