William Stafford's "Traveling through the Dark"

Updated on September 30, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

William Stafford


Introduction and Text of Poem, "Traveling through the Dark"

The theme of William Stafford's "Traveling through the Dark," dramatizes the difficulty of having to make a life and death decision.

The poem displays in five unriming stanzas. The first four stanzas feature four lines each, while the final stanza offers only two lines.

(Please note: The incorrect spelling, "rhyme," was erroneously introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson. For my explanation for using only the correct form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

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.

Stafford reads his poem and tells his little story of how he composed it.

First Stanza: "Traveling through the dark I found a deer"

The speaker of Stafford's "Traveling through the Dark" begins by introducing the circumstances in which he became involved while driving on a curvy road: he suddenly spots a dead deer in the treacherous road. He knows that he must stop his car, get out, and push the dead carcass into the valley.

The speaker has obviously experienced this situation many times heretofore. He knows that if he does not push the dead deer off the road, other motorists could likely come upon it, swerve to miss it, and go hurtling into the canyon which might kill a car full of people.

Second Stanza: "By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car"

The speaker's report continues detailing what he did next. After stepping out of his vehicle, he awkwardly ambles to the back of his car to check out the condition of the animal.

After examining the body, he discovers that the deer has already begun to stiffen and is nearly cold. While dragging her body to the edge of the canyon, the speaker discovers to his shock and dismay that the poor doe was pregnant.

Third Stanza: "My fingers touching her side brought me the reason"

The speaker is able to discern that a fawn was inside his mother's dead carcass; he found that her side was still warm with the unborn baby. This situation changes things immensely.

It is one thing to push a non-pregnant deer over into the canyon, but now there is here a young life involved. The fawn is nearly ready to be born, and if he shoves the mother's dead carcass into the valley, he is shoving the fawn also and to its death.

His decision just became more involved. So even though a car could come barreling down the curvy road any moment, the speaker simply cannot send that fawn to its death without proper consideration.

If occurs to him that his ordinary reaction to finding a dead deer in the road has now turned into a situation that renders him a callous man for throwing away the life an unborn baby.

Fourth Stanza: "The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights"

As the fourth stanza is painting the scene, it also stands in as a place holder for the moments in which the speaker ruminates about the choices open to him. He takes notice of the low light of the parked car, the low hum of the engine noise, as he stands "in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red."

The little group of folks accompanying the speaker on his ride all stand around listening to the silence of the wilderness that seems also to be "listen[ing]." The speaker has only a few seconds to decide what to do. The images all portray the urgency of the situation.

The speaker considers the possibility of delivering the fawn, which he would much prefer to do than just shoving it to it death. But then he realizes immediately that he cannot possibly perform such a task under these circumstances.

Even if he managed to deliver the fawn alive, he would not be able to keep it alive.

Fifth Stanza: "I thought hard for us all—my only swerving"

The speaker concludes his drama by emphasizing how difficult it was to make the decision he finally made. He labels his hesitation his "only swerving." He had been tossed a curve that deviated his ordinary reaction to coming up a dead animal in the road.

Instead of immediately pushing the carcass into canyon, he had to stop and think about the issues of life and death.

The speaker thought hard about the dilemma, but then finally he knows that he must "push[ ] her over the edge" in order to save other lives on that treacherous road on that dark night.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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