Study Guide

Traveling through the Dark Death

By William Stafford

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.

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