Traveling Through the Dark by William Stafford: Summary and Analysis

In this poem Traveling Through the Dark the poet William Stafford describes how he was moved by the death of a pregnant doe when he was driving a car along the mountain road at night. At the side of a Wilson River road he saw a deer.

William Stafford (1914-1993)

The road was narrow. So he thought it was best for the deer to move into the gorges formed by the river. He stopped his car and moved back to see the deer. She was a doe and she had recently been killed. Her body was already stiff and almost cold.

He pulled her heavy body to the side. Her belly was large. It made him think that she was pregnant and her fawn was waiting inside. Although it was alive, it would never be born. He was filled with pity and was unwilling to do anything. The parking lights of the car were on and the engine was making a low continuous sound as if it was expressing its pleasure. Its exhaust fume was warm and red, and the poet was standing there. He felt as if the cry in the wilderness was being heard. After thinking seriously, he pushed her into the river.

In the first three stanzas, the speaker describes how he saw a deer, how he dragged her to the side and what he felt when he touched her side. But in the fourth stanza he does not say anything about the deer. He describes the car and her activities. There is a break in the narrative. It is quite significant in the poem because it gives a clear contrast between the animal and the machine. The animal with a life inside is dead, but the car looks lifelike. Her fumes are warm whereas the doe is cold and stiffened.

The last two lines of the poem complete both types of action: mental and physical. As he thinks hard on behalf of the nature lovers, he comes to the conclusion that the right place for the doe is the river. Then he throws the dead body into the river. The last two lines of the poem try to solve the problem of environmental damage. Instead of worrying about the problem, one has to accept the things as they are. Or the poet may be satirizing that the so-called nature-lovers are responsible for the environmental damage.

In this poem Stafford presents a great tension between two realities, two systems of life. On one hand are efficiency and responsibility, unglamorous virtues that we learn to admire when we face danger or loss. On the other hand, there are emotions warmer than efficiency and deeper than good judgment where on the scale of rational decision making is the protagonist to weigh what he feels when he touches the doe’s side: “her fawn lay there waiting, alive, still, never to be born”? Stafford’s poem is strong because he does full justice to both sides of the conflict.

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