(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Traveling Through the Dark” is Stafford’s most famous, most often anthologized poem. It is somewhat atypical, as it tells a story about a real experience in a fairly straightforward way. Yet in its underlying concern with nature—in this case, a deer found dead in the road—with humans’ invasion of the wilderness, and with the individual’s responsibility to do what is right “for us all,” the poem reveals some of Stafford’s abiding themes.

“Traveling Through the Dark” achieves its power by subtly blending the symbolic and the real and by seeing underneath the surface event to its larger consequences. The title suggests not so much a drive on a mountain road as a spiritual journey through unknown territory. At the same time, something quite real has happened. Stafford has “found a deer/ dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.” That he names the road specifically gives the poem the feel of authentic experience.

Roads and paths, for Stafford, often symbolize the ongoing process of life, and here he must confront a dilemma that involves his deepest relation to all of life. At first, he realizes that he should roll the deer into the canyon to protect other drivers who come after him; he notes that “to swerve might make more dead.” When he examines the deer, however, he discovers that it is a pregnant doe; its fawn is still alive, waiting to be born. Suddenly, the choices are much more complicated. Should he try to...

(The entire section is 557 words.)