Study Guide

Traveling through the Dark Analysis

By William Stafford

  • Sound Check

    Have you ever noticed how some people are just better at telling stories or jokes? (Speaking of jokes, have you heard the one about the lit. major and the talking horse? No? Well, remind us; we'll tell you later).

    One of the things that makes someone a good storyteller is the sense of confidence with which they tell the tale, and also their own personal sense of rhythm and timing. When you read this poem aloud, it sounds confident. It sounds sure of itself—not in an arrogant way, just in the sense that only the necessary information is included and it is presented in what feels and sounds like an effortless way. Each word sounds like it belongs exactly where it is. Nothing is wasted or out of place.

    Part of what creates this confident sound is the strong alliteration and sound repetition in the poem's opening stanza:

    Traveling through the dark I found a deer
    dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.

    Hear all those hard D sounds? That repetition gives us a sense of a beat, even though the lines themselves aren't rhyming or singsong-y. But there is definitely a rhythm that gives us the sense that we are in good hands—the speaker knows where this is going.

    Another thing that gives this one a confident tone is the way Stafford never wastes any words. He doesn't go on and on. When people don't know what they are talking about, they usually handle it one of two ways: they don't say anything, or, they say waaaaay too much. They go on and on trying to convince you they know what they are talking about, but with each new sentence they make it clearer and clearer that they have no idea what's going on. Stafford gives us just enough information to capture the scene and then he moves on: "that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead" (4). There's not much more to say. Stafford knows this and moves on. All in all, the straightforward, yet guiding sounds of the poem mirror the personality of our speaker. Don't believe us? Just check out our "Speaker" section for more.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Stafford gives us a pretty clear title here, and the fact that this title is repeated as the first half of the poem's first line tells us that he wants us to pay particular attention.

    The title sets the scene both literally and thematically. The speaker is driving at night—traveling through the darkness. The title also gives us the sense of "darkness" as in the unknown and suggests our travels through the mysteries of life, death, and the great beyond.

    Traveling in the dark also sounds kind of dangerous and difficult—hard to see where you're going in the dark, right? It's also hard to choose the right path when you can't see your hand in front of your face. Stafford wanted all these things to pop into our heads (at some level at least) when we read the title.

    When the title is repeated as part of the first line, it gets more grounded in the literal narrative of the poem. The same words as part of the first line seem more concrete. In that way, the title and first line together give us a kind of mystery-to-clarity movement. The title is more abstract, without all the deets of the story to come, but when we see it in the first line we sigh a bit in relief (don't you?). We're not totally alone here, wandering around in the dark and banging our shins on unseen furniture. The story to follow reminds us that we have the speaker, and Stafford through him, to help guide us along.

  • Setting

    Setting is crucial in this one. All the setting elements (nighttime, the wilderness, the mountain road, the car) are necessary for this poem to work. Just try to imagine the poem without one of these elements and you'll probably agree that some aspect of the poem would be missing or at least dramatically diminished.

    For example, let's imagine everything in the poem is the same, except it is daytime. We lose all those associations with darkness we talked about in the "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay" section. We lose that eerie red glow from the tail-light, and we lose the intense focus of the scene (if it is daytime, we can see the trees and the mountain and the birds and the river—at night, all we can see is what is illuminated by the red tail-light: the dead deer and the speaker). Or what if the road was wide and lined with flower-filled meadows instead of being narrow and on the edge of a canyon? We would lose that sense of teetering precariously on the edge of life's road, overlooking death's dark abyss.

    In a sense, the setting is the poem. The loneliness, the sadness, the emotion of the poem comes from the setting and the action, not from the language. Think about it. The most emotional the speaker gets is in the line "I thought hard" (17). Almost everything we feel, almost everything we are forced to consider comes from setting, situation, and the action that is described—not from the speaker's feelings or language.

  • Speaker

    The speaker of this poem seems like the kind of guy you'd want to have on your team if you were a Survivor contestant. He seems to know stuff: "It is usually best to roll them into the canyon" (3); "My fingers touching her side brought me the reason" (9). And he keeps pretty calm, even in the face adversity and death. Given Stafford's background (he was a guy who loved the outdoors and didn't mind getting his hands dirty), it seems reasonable to consider some overlap between the poet as the speaker, though it's always dangerous to confuse the two completely. Here, we might say that the speaker is at least a man with similar knowledge and experience.

    One of the first things we notice about this speaker is that he tells the story of the dead deer and his task in an even, controlled way. He doesn't get dramatic or emotional or sentimental when he tells us this tale. This is important. Imagine the poem with a very emotional or overly dramatic speaker—it turns into a very different, probably very sentimental, poem. The poem needs a very even, controlled speaker to balance the drama and emotion of the situation. When things are all one way, all one note, they tend to be less interesting. It's like that friend you have that is always drama, drama, drama. Pretty soon, you start to tune them out. The drama just doesn't seem as urgent anymore. Now consider the poem: dead animal. Dead, cute animal. Dead, cute animal and baby dead, cute animal. Stafford knew a lot of heartstrings were getting tugged all at once in this one. A weepy speaker probably would have been one too many. He needed that steady speaker as a counterpoint to the emotional events in the poem.

    In fact, the speaker kind of moves into the background, functioning primarily as a storyteller, simply recounting events rather than discussing in detail his feelings and emotions: "her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting" (10). With this approach, we tend to consider the speaker less and the actions and events more. The significance and feeling of what is actually happening comes to the forefront. This way, we, as readers, experience the scene first-hand rather than experiencing and reacting to the speaker's emotions first.

    Instead, we are allowed to see and feel the scene for ourselves. By choosing this kind of steady, even-toned speaker, Stafford makes the action in the poem much more immediate and that makes the impact on the reader much greater. Good choice Bill.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    Stafford isn't trying to sneak anything past you with this one. The car is a car, the road is a road, the deer is a deer. But don't ignore the scenery just because this is base camp. If take a good look around, you might find the view as dramatic and complex as it is from nearer the summit.

  • Calling Card

    Cool, Clear, Conversational

    William Stafford poems generally tell it like it is. He tends to let images, actions, and narratives do a great deal of the work in his poems and setting often plays a big role. More often than not, the setting is natural or rural—small town rather than big city. Reading a Stafford poem, you are likely to come across lots of town names and specifics about places and people—it isn't going to be a river it's going to be "Wilson River." Family and childhood are going to make appearances as well.

    Another calling card is Stafford's poetic voice. In The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Stafford described his poetry as, "much like talk, with some embellishment" (892). This makes Stafford's poetry sound familiar. It makes it comfortable to read. His poems have a confident, conversational tone, often sounding more like the way specific people speak than like poetry. As a result, a Stafford poem feels more like listening to your cool uncle tell stories (some true, some imaginary) after a long dinner and a couple beers and less like listening to your bongo-playing English teacher at an open-mike night. And Stafford's speakers tend to keep their cool rather than becoming overly emotional or sentimental, even when discussing subjects that are emotionally charged.

    Basically, Stafford writes poems without letting poetry get in the way. Check out "A Family Turn" and "A Posy" for just two other examples.

  • Form and Meter

    Free Verse

    While this one falls under the heading of free verse there are some structural and metrical elements that make the poem feel very ordered.

    One of the first things that jumps out about this poem is that it's organized into four, nice, neat four-line stanzas, with a tidy little couplet at the end.

    The four-line stanzas resemble elegiac stanzas (specifically, these are four-line stanzas of iambic pentameter with alternate rhyming lines). The lines aren't in iambic pentameter, and the end words don't exactly rhyme, but there is enough similarity to make us think of an elegy (a poem that reflects on mournful topics, especially death). That all checks out, right? After all, this poem is about the death of the doe and the fawn. And that switch from the four line stanzas to the final couplet gives us the sense of something missing or incomplete—perhaps mirroring the loss of the doe and the fawn.

    You might also have noticed something going on with the end words in the second and fourth lines of stanzas 1-4 and both lines of the final couplet. It's that rhyme that isn't really rhyme we mentioned before. What you are noticing is called false, or slant, rhyme. The words contain similar sounds, but are not true or full rhymes. Take a look at these end words side by side: "road" and "dead," "killing" and "belly," "waiting" and "hesitated," "engine" and "listen," "swerving" and "river."

    Can you hear those similar sounds? The words don't exactly rhyme, but they share sounds and, in some cases like "road" and "dead," "killing" and "belly," actually look similar in ways that make a subtle connection between the words.

    Sometimes very strong, full rhymes can make a poem feel formal or too singsong-y. By using this very subtle false rhyme technique here, Stafford is able to keep a conversational, informal tone. At the same time, the lines feel very connected. When we read this poem, it really feels like every line, every word is exactly where it should be. That feeling comes, in part, from the connection between those false-rhymed end words.

    So what's up with this technique? Why would Stafford link, but not link, his lines together through this approach? Well, if you ask us (and thanks oodles for doing that, by the way), we'd tell you that this makes perfect sense in a poem that's trying to cope with the idea of death. Think about it: death is pretty much the ultimate in disharmony—pretty and exact end rhymes just wouldn't cut it. However, our speaker is thinking "hard for us all," and clearing a path (literally and figuratively) that can help us through the darkness. He may not be able to take our hand every step of the way, but these loosely-connected lines feel like we do maintain some guiding connection to him through these lines. The false, or slant, rhymes remind us that at least we've got that going for us. Yay?

  • The Dark

    In the context of the poem, the dark is nighttime. But the dark also works metaphorically throughout the poem. When we think about darkness, a lot of different things come up: it is difficult to see in the dark, it represents the unknown, it is scary. (No—we're not afraid of the dark; we just happen to really like our Yoda night-light.) There is sometimes an element of evil in darkness, and it can also feel very lonely. Let's take a look at how some of these elements work in the poem.

    • Title: The "darkness" in the title is especially ambiguous because we don't have any other information to attach to it. The first word in the title is "traveling." When we think about traveling from one place to another through the dark, it seems a bit ominous. It would be difficult to see where you are going and therefore difficult to reach your destination. Some of those other dark associations come into play as well—the unknown, an underlying feeling of something sinister or evil.
    • Line 1: When the title is repeated as part of line 1, the darkness gets a little more specific. We still aren't sure exactly where we are or what is happening until a little later in stanza 1, but at least we know we are somewhere in the real world in some sort of a natural setting—a place where there are deer. Even when we do know exactly what is happening, that the dark is nothing more than the darkness of the night, all those other associations with darkness have already been planted in our heads (with the title and the first line) and those ominous feelings kind of stick with us throughout the poem.
  • The Road

    The road is, well, the road. But it also functions metaphorically in the poem. Most of us are familiar with the road as a metaphor for life's journey and also the idea of choosing the right path or road to follow. We can see these ideas at work in Stafford's poem, too. Check it out…

    • Line 2: The poem's first mention of the road establishes the literal image of the road—a specific, rural, mountain road. Stafford's primary concern in this poem isn't to make big, sweeping philosophical statements. First and foremost, Stafford wants to tell us what is happening in a very real, very literal sense.
    • Line 4: We are still talking about the literal mountain road. It really is narrow. But since we are all so familiar with the metaphorical uses of the road, those ideas start to surface as well. With those ideas of life's journey and the right path in mind, the fact that this road is narrow takes on some added significance.
      If life is a road to travel, when you get off the road you are—anyone? anyone?—dead. So the fact that this road is narrow literally and metaphorically makes life seem pretty precarious.
      There is also the idea that the speaker is trying to choose the right path. Making the wrong choice, swerving off course, of the road of life, can "make more dead."
    • Line 12: Choosing the right path is difficult. The choices are hard. The speaker is still on the road, but is over near the edge considering the dead doe and her still living, unborn fawn. The speaker knows the right path, he knows what he has to do to keep the road of life clear for the living, but he hesitates because what he has to do is so grim. Sometimes, on the road of life, the right choice is the hardest, cruelest option.
  • The Car

    Here again, just like with the dark and the road, in the primary reading of the poem the car is just a car. Stafford is not trying to fool anyone. But in the way the car is described, with the imagery that Stafford uses, we can also find metaphorical significance. Okay, so it isn't like KITT from Knight Rider, but it does play an important part in the metaphorical reading of the poem.

    • Line 5: The car's first appearance doesn't seem very significant, but it is "by glow of the [car's] tail-light" that the speaker first sees the dead doe. Remember, it is nighttime on a mountain road. There are no streetlights to illuminate the scene. The only light source in all that wild darkness is the car's red tail-light. The image of the speaker and the dead doe washed in the eerie red tail-light sets the tone for the rest of the poem.
    • Lines 13-15: The red tail-light is aimed behind the car at the speaker and the dead deer. The parking lights are "aimed ahead," further down the road of life. The eyes of the car are focused on the road of life—on living. The personification of the car, the "purring engine" below the hood, makes us think of the car as a living thing. The engine gives it life, making us think of a steady, beating heart—the one that beats in the driver and still beats in the doomed fawn.
      The speaker stands in the "warm exhaust." With the earlier personification, the exhaust makes us think of exhaling into the cold night air and seeing our breath. The car represents life, the living. It's an interesting choice of metaphor, considering the car is the only mechanical thing in the poem. Having a mechanical element represent the living gets more attention. It's unexpected and way more interesting. We've all seen trees and flowers and birds work as metaphors for life and nature. The fact that Stafford can make a car work this way is pretty cool, right? Right?
  • Steaminess Rating


    There's nothing sexy about this one. But we're going to slap it with a PG for the car-on-deer violence.