When reading a poem for the first time, it is fairly easy to view it on a literal level. Nonetheless, after analyzing the purpose, tone, word choice, and figures of speech and how they simultaneously work together, the reader is hit with a whole new perception of the poem. William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” holds this characteristic. The poem is about a man driving on a narrow road at night and his internal conflict triggered by an encounter with a dead deer along the road. He immediately leaves his car and walks toward the deer with the intention of rolling it “into the canyon.” However, when he discovers that this deer has an unborn fawn, the man is struck with an instant conflict. Does he push the deer off into the canyon? Or does he leave it alone and save the fawn while endangering the lives of others that will travel this narrow road?
Stafford uses a man’s simple confrontation with a deer as an instrument for conveying a deeper message about nature. He comes across a dead deer, and without hesitation, plans to push it into the canyon. This clearly indicates that the speaker holds no emotions whatsoever for the deer. Then, a conversational tone is thrown into the mix. The narrator is sharing and guiding the readers through his experience. He gives advice in line four, “It is usually best to roll them into the canyon.” This supports his informal attitude and establishes a relationship with the reader in hopes of allowing the reader to feel the way he does.
Several symbolic elements emphasize the theme of Traveling through the Dark, all within the last three stanzas of the poem. The first symbol, an unborn fawn. The fawn represents the future of nature in the changing world. Although the mother, or nature in present time, has been killed the fawn still waits “alive, still, never to be born” (11). The fawn waits in hope that it will live to breathe air, in the hope that the speaker will save it. However, technology is also competing for the speaker’s attention. The first three lines of the fourth stanza make the idling car into a mechanized beast that kills nature. Some details about this mechanized beast are on lines thirteen to fifteen where the car “aimed ahead” (13) its lights, “purred” (14) its steady, idling engine, and emitting “warm exhaust turning red” (15).
The third and final symbol is revealed only in the last stanza. On line seventeen, “I thought hard for us all” exhibits the fact that the speaker is representative of all mankind. The speaker represents mankind coming around the curve in the dark. He symbolizes mankind being caught in the struggle between nature and technology. Nature in the form of a dead doe is portrayed as an object worthy of pity while the mechanical beast is a ruthless image. Among the various descriptions relating to the dead doe, the most conspicuous is of her being “large in the belly” (8). “The heap, a doe” (6) describes the speaker’s first impression of the recent killing.
Aside from those two images, the other description of the doe correlates to the sense of touch; the speaker notices that that the doe’s “side was warm” (10) after brushing finger against her fur. Stafford describes the car with regards to three of the body’s five senses. The car is described as having its lights “lowered” (13) or dimmed, casting the scene in shadows. The steady purring emitted from the engine appeals to the speaker’s sense of hearing. “Warm exhaust” (16) caresses the speaker, stimulating the speaker’s sense of touch.