Study Guide

Traveling through the Dark Quotes

By William Stafford

  • Choices

    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. (1-3)

    This poem starts off with a choice. What to do about the dead deer? The speaker seems to know what he should do, but that word "usually" allows us a moment to consider the possibility of not doing it. Shmoop usually has peanut butter and jelly for lunch, but today we are going to have sushi. (Mmm, sushi.)

    By including that one word, Stafford draws us into the poem and subtly pushes us to think about what we would do in this situation. It's probably cold, we know it's dark, and it might be dangerous to pull over and get out of the car on this narrow mountain road. What to do?

    If Stafford had written, "I pulled over to move the deer out of the road to prevent an accident," our minds probably wouldn't go through the same process of considering the choice, the options, and the consequences.

    her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
    alive, still, never to be born.
    Beside that mountain road I hesitated. (10-12)

    What seemed like a pretty simple choice for our speaker suddenly got a little trickier when he realized there was still a living fawn inside the doe. What made the speaker pause? After all, the fawn is doomed, right? There is no indication in the poem that there is any hope of saving the fawn. The speaker, as far as we know, is not a veterinary surgeon. Even if the speaker changes his mind and doesn't push the doe into the river, the fawn is going to die either way. Why the hesitation?

    I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,
    then pushed her over the edge into the river. (17-18)

    Despite the speaker's hesitation, he goes ahead with his original choice and pushes the dead deer into the river. In this final couplet, we discover what made the speaker hesitate, or swerve from his original course of action: he was thinking "hard for us all." Who was he thinking about exactly? The dead doe, the living fawn, and himself? Perhaps. What other possibilities exist? Who else could he have been thinking about?

  • Man and the Natural World

    By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
    and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing. (5-6)

    A car, most likely, killed the doe. Now, the scene is illuminated by the unnatural "tail-light" from the speaker's car. We start to see the car as representative of man and the damage he inflicts on the natural world—how he casts an ominous red glow over the natural landscape.

    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. (13-15)

    The car aims its own lights ahead, like heavy lidded eyes, the engine purrs "under the hood," steady like a beating heart in a human chest, the "warm exhaust" like breath in the cold, night air. Suddenly, the car seems different. The personification makes the car seem part of the natural world—a living, breathing thing.

    around our group I could hear the wilderness listen. (16)

    From this description, we really get the sense that the group (speaker, doe, fawn, personified car) is surrounded by nature. In fact, if we think about the scene, the group is literally surrounded: trees, animals, mountains, rivers are all around. Not only is nature everywhere, it is listening. Stafford's word choice, "I could hear the wilderness listen [our emphasis]," adds a sense of judgment—it's like the speaker can feel nature waiting to see if he will do the right thing or not.

  • Death

    Traveling through the dark I found a deer
    dead on the edge of the Wilson River road. (1-2)

    When you read line 1 for the first time, you might have gotten the image of a graceful deer glimpsed through moonlit darkness. But then, even before you can really enjoy the image, you come to the first word of the second line: "dead." In our minds, one minute the deer is bounding along happily, the next the deer is dead in a "heap" on the side of the road. Here one second, gone the next—Stafford has given us mortality in a nutshell.

    that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead. (4)

    A metaphorical reading of this line really brings out the mortality theme. The narrow road is the road, the path, we take on life's journey. If the road is narrow, that means it is difficult to navigate. If we veer or swerve, if we go off the road of life, we die. This reading certainly makes life seem precarious.

    her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
    alive, still, never to be born. (10-11)

    The living fawn is doomed to death even before being born. Stafford is driving home the idea that death is always with us, part of our existence from the moment life begins. If we think about the literal situation, the cyclical nature of life and death becomes apparent. There is a living thing inside a dead body. In death, there is life, and in life there is death. When an animal dies in the forest, the decomposition of the body provides life-giving nutrients for the trees and foliage. An animal killed by another for food provides energy for life and reproduction. In the end, death is kind of like going to the dentist. It's an unpleasant but necessary part of life.

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
    that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead. (3-4)

    The speaker knows what to do with the dead. He knows how precarious the road of life is, how easy it is to run off the road. And he knows that deviating (swerving) from the proper life path might have negative consequences. It sounds like this guy has been on "that road" for a while and knows what to do.

    My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
    her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
    alive, still, never to be born. (9-11)

    If you were in the speaker's position, would you be able to tell that the doe was pregnant by touching her side? These lines give us important information about the speaker. Not only do they let us know that the speaker is knowledgeable in the ways of the natural world, they also tell us he is a very perceptive person. He takes the time to notice things. He is aware: aware of how the dead doe's body feels on his fingers, aware of the fate that awaits the fawn, and aware of the part that he must play in the fawn's death.

    I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—
    then pushed her over the edge into the river. (17-18)

    Our speaker isn't the kind of guy that goes around blindly pushing pregnant deer off cliffs. He's a thinker. In fact, he "thought hard for us all." We can read "us all" as humanity. But it could also refer to the little group on the edge of the road: the speaker, the doe, and her fawn. Even though the speaker knows what he must do, he pauses to consider the impact of his actions on the three. He knows that he is the one that will bare the pain of the event far down the road. He is wise enough to know that an action can be difficult and painful and still be right.