Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Traveling Through the Dark” asks readers to examine in a profound way the implications of their actions and the connotations of their thoughts and words. To live in the modern world, Stafford suggests metaphorically, is to travel through a variety of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual landscapes, some of which may be cast in light, but others of which are in shadow. Every individual, at one time or another, will go over (figuratively, at least) narrow and dangerous mountain roads on dark nights, and one must discipline oneself to go as responsibly and self-consciously as one can. How can one prepare oneself to deal with the unexpected? To act rather than to ignore, suggests Stafford—to be a participant rather than merely an observer, because physical situations can provide the context for moral and ethical choices.

“Traveling Through the Dark” focuses on the parallels between physical swerving (line 4) and mental swerving (line 17), between a literal loss of control and a figurative loss of mental control caused by doubt. Coupled with this is the connection between the human (and even mechanical) world and the animal world. In the fourth stanza, for example, the car “aimed” its headlight; its engine “purred”; and “the warm exhaust turn[ed] red,” suggesting a mingling of breath and blood. As the speaker expands his consciousness of the world from himself to the doe, fawn, and himself (“our group” in line 16) and then further to all society (“us all” in line 17), he extends his thematic perceptions from the individual to the communal: The reader is asked to make a decision with him. The decision has to do with what is, in any particular situation, the humane act as well as the just thing to do—what it means to be responsible, not only for oneself, but for one another and for the environment.

The questions suggested by the poem are many, and they concern each individual’s particular responsibility for the environment as a whole (air, land, and water) as well as for the other creatures that inhabit it. Stafford uses personification effectively to indicate and insist that all creatures are in the world together; human responsibility is finally a communal as well as an individual one.