The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark” is a short poem of eighteen lines, divided into four quatrains and a closing couplet. The title clearly describes both the literal and the figurative situation in the poem as well as its governing metaphor: The speaker himself is traveling through the dark on a narrow mountain road, and by extension, so is everyone.

The poem is written in the first person, giving an immediacy and directness to the experience; the reader is there with the poet, though he tells the story in the past tense. Many poets choose to speak through a created voice, or persona, but one senses in this poem that Stafford is speaking directly from his own experience. By sharing his personal experience so vividly, Stafford gives it an immediacy, authority, and power that helps one make it a part of one’s own.

The first stanza begins with a description of the setting and the context of the events which follow. The speaker is traveling at night on a narrow mountain road and comes upon the body of a dead deer. Because the road is so narrow, he realizes that the dead deer is a hazard to other drivers, who might swerve suddenly to avoid it and drive off the road into the river canyon and be killed.

Stanza 2 shows him getting out of the car to look at the deer; he discovers that it is a doe, only recently dead. As he drags it off the road, he realizes that its belly is unusually large. In stanza 3, he discovers...

(The entire section is 507 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Stafford uses poetic form with startling effectiveness in this poem. His quatrains use an abcb slant rhyme pattern (“road” with “dead,” “killing” with “belly,” “waiting” with “hesitated,” and “engine” with “listen”) with great effectiveness; the slant rhyme undercuts any romanticized notion that being in nature is an unadulterated delight. He also uses the sound reinforcements of assonance and alliteration; in stanza 1, for example, there is “dark,” “deer,” and “dead”; “river,” “road,” and “roll”; and “might,” “make,” and “more.” The repetition of sounds, as subtle as it is, intensifies the nuances of the speaker’s experience and helps to lead him (and the reader) to the final action, which must be done without any “swerving.” Stafford also builds an effective movement from external to internal action, and from physical to moral responsibility; he emphasizes this process with the pause in the middle of the poem (line 12) in which he hesitates in order to decide the best course of action to take. Another important poetic device is the use of puns, or wordplay, here intensely serious rather than comic. Besides the dual meaning of “swerving,” for example, there is the dual meaning of “still” (line 11): The fawn continues to live, but it is quiet as well (as is the speaker).

The central device of the poem, however, is the use of action as metaphor. The decision of one person is exemplified and amplified to represent a decision for all people, in any time and place. The decision is also a specific answer in a specific situation to the question of one’s individual and communal responsibility to the environment in which one lives. Because Stafford has deliberately understated his case, both through an objective point of view (he tells what he thinks, but not what he feels, about the situation) and a slant rhyme scheme, each of which avoids the obvious in sense and structure, he has allowed readers to make their own emotional responses, without any poetic sentimentality.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Andrews, Tom, ed. On William Stafford: The Worth of Local Things. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Holden, Jonathan. The Mark to Turn. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1976.

Kitchen, Judith. Writing the World: Understanding William Stafford. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1999.

Pinsker, Sanford. “William Stafford: ’The Real Things We Live By.’” In Three Pacific Northwest Poets. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Stafford, Kim. Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 2002.

Stitt, Peter. “William Stafford’s Wilderness Quest.” In The World: Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.