Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason–
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all–my only swerving–,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

Analysis, meaning and summary of William Stafford's poem Traveling Through The Dark


  1. Michael Oliver says:

    I really like your analysis @alem however I would like to point out that the poem never states that the person is female or male.

  2. shreeyanta says:

    very influential poem…..,important to suggest that e should always be prepared to make a good choice between any two sides of conflict.

  3. alem says:

    When a person unexpectedly faces a crisis which tests his moral sensitivity, he is forced to make a choice. Some of these choices, he might not want to make but is forced to because they could either be very important, or they could be less significant. Even though some choices might not make that much of a difference in the world, they can still affect us, and the things around us. In “Travelling Through The Dark”, William Stanford takes us through a series of events which occur at a specific time and place, and uses these events to explain human’s disregard for nature. He brings us into a situation which involves a moral dilemma, including man and technology versus nature, while using these events to justify the decision that follows.
    We are put right into a scenario which describes a specific situation at a specific location, when a man finds a dead deer on the edge of a road. The term “dark” ( 1 ) creates a certain atmosphere, one which is uncertain and filled with suspense and danger. This darkness symbolizes the unknown and the uncertainty of what lies ahead. He stops when he sees the deer laying on the edge of the Wilson River Road, and thoughts come to his mind immediately.” It is usually best to roll them into the canyon”(2-3) here he thinks about a number of options he has, as he could either simply just drive on and act like he didn’t see anything or he could intervene. Driving on would be very convenient for him as he wouldn’t have to deal with the situation, but that is egoistic, while intervening would be altruistic and would show that he has concern for other people. He thinks further “that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead”. Swerving is dangerous because in trying to swerve, a car might lose control and fall into the canyon causing loss of human lives. The narrator then decides to intervene.
    By glow of the tail- light I stumbled back of the car
    And stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
    She had stiffened already, almost cold.
    I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.
    About. (5-8)
    Here we can see that he is bold and considerate as he jumps out of his car and pulls the dead animal to the side. It just recently died, meaning the animal is still fresh and he could probably chop it up and use it for meat. That is utilitarianism right there and there is nothing wrong with making due with what life gives you as it is totally legal. But as he feels the warmth in its belly, he realizes that the animal is pregnant and its faun is still alive. He then pauses and asks himself a number of questions. Could it be saved? If he finally gets the baby out of the womb would it make any difference? Could the child survive in the wild with no mother to guide it? He then continues by saying “waiting, alive, still, never to be born” (9-10) Waiting makes the fawn seem more alive than it actually is. Its like the fawn is peacefully waiting for the decision for whether it will live or die. The narrator did think hard for a while but he also uses the words never to be born, which indicates that his mind was made up from the word go. He thought about it so that if ever in the future he felt sorrow or guilt for the fawn he could say to himself at least I thought about it. He isn’t thinking about what to do, he is making an excuse for himself. Also, the hesitation might be seen as a sign of consideration, as he thinks of what is the best thing to do that will be of benefit for most people at that time. “Lowered parking lights” here the car symbolizes technology and the fact that the lights lower, the car engine roars and its exhaust turns red, shows that there is need for him to hurry and move on. So he has to make a choice between technology and nature as in wasting more time, the car engine could die down and he would be stuck. The narrator further mentions “The wilderness” which simply tells us that he was alone at that time in a secluded place where not too many people came by. In the end of the poem, to swerve means to go around, to go off your path. It may not be by choice but everyone encounters a situation in life where they must stop and make a choice, they must swerve, go around, take another path. Here he thinks about a decision he is about to make for the entire human race and he feels like it is the right decision at that time, so he pushes the dead animal into the canyon. This means he is killing a life to protect the life of another.
    Stanford’s use of words, images and scenes here explains to us that sometimes, in spite of our best impulses and desires, we are unable to change the course of life or death. Our intentions and noble impulses often fail to achieve the things we desire, and in recognizing that truth we can resign ourselves to the inevitable.

  4. Brian says:

    Okay, so I came to the conclusion that the driver could be interpreted as Adolf Hitler. The fawn could be intrepreted as the Jewish people. This is from the perspective of Adolf Hitler, so Adolf Hitler comes to God (deer). It is a narrow road, meaning Adolf Hilter has a very narrow perspective. The engine purrs at one point, The nazis passion for waht they are doing, the front lights dim. Adolf Hitlers narrow perspective becomes narrower. Exhaust turns red, they used torture methods of that kind, and also the battle became bloodier. Hilter hesitates, a moral battle of some kind, finally decides that the jewish people killed there God, cannot survive on there own, and nor could Adolf help them in any way.
    Of course i don’t believe any of this, but Hitler could have

  5. nish says:

    viewing all the comments i just read helped me to understand the poem more and i got some answers as well from these comments for my homework assignment and i think this is a pretty good idea for students like me cause im only 14 in high skool and this was a big help for me so thanks ill be back when i need help with my other poems lol bye now

  6. sher says:

    The main tones highlighted in this poem is “dark” which signifies death, negativity,& loneliness.It’s major theme is human nature.

    The persona finds a dead doe on a heap by the roadside and out his care and love for nature he stops to see the deer.On touching the side of the doe the persona realizes that the doe is pregnant and the fawn is still alive inside waiting to be born.

    The persona became hesitant because now he has to make a more difficult choice of wether the mother would want her fawn to live or die.As his audience wait in anticipation of his next move. The persona pushed the doe over the edge into the river.

    This poem could best be renamed as “Man of Nature” or “Never to be born”.

    In conclusion while travelling through the dark a carefull driver, who loves nature, found a dead doe which was pregnant but her fawn was never to be born.

  7. Nodnarb Eloop says:

    This poem is exactly what the title suggest. It is about life. The darkness is our future, which we cannot see. The deer did not “see” the car which hit, before the fact. This is just as humans do not know the future and get “hit by cars” all the time (ie. Hurrican Katrina,9/11). This is the swerving he did for all of us. The deer represents death/life. The car helps bring out the image of piercing through the darkness with limited vision in front of us.

  8. Lauren says:

    Though William Stafford wrote of the ordinary life of man and the experiences of the every day life, I found a more complicated meaning inside this poem. I saw that as the narrator as ‘traveling through the dark I found a deer dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.’ I felt as if the deer represented an effort that was made but destroyed by humans (represented by the car). I am very big on symbolism and I saw: Car=public/ human cruelty; Deer= fallen attempt of something; Fawn= surviving hope of the product of the effort; Dark night= a bad situation or struggle.
    As the narrator first starts to dispose of the carrion (decaying flesh) he feels the fawn inside and he realizes that it will not survive with it’s mother dead. The narrator is given the chance of rescuing the dying hope, but as William describes “The car aimed its lowered parking lights; under the hood purred the steady engine. I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust truning red around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.” I see the description of the car as the waiting of human kind to go ahead and dispose of the carcus and return to its normal route, while the wilderness is listening to see if the human will help it. After much thought, the narrator chooses to dispose of the deer. This is symbolic to human ignorance in that he was given the choice and did not take advantage of the situation of saving a hope. The Swerving mentioned in the first stanza (…to swerve might make more dead.) is described as his swerving at the last stanza (–my only swerving–). The swerve that the narrator recognizes in his action may lead to (as teh irony calls for) the downfall or ‘more dead’ that he may inflict upon himself. It is a very descriptive poem that does have deeper meaning if you look for it. This is just my interpretation of it.

  9. Kyla Johanson says:

    I believe this poem was an excellent choice to read in my English II Honors class. I think this poem was very explanatory, and most poems are not. This did not cause any confusion, and made a very good resource to work off of. This poem was a good subject, since this happens in real life, and was very visual to read. This poem had a sense of compassion and hurt since a baby doe was not born due to his mother being hit by a car. I enjoyed writing about this poem, and would definately want to do it again.

  10. TylerTui. says:

    I feel that the poem was strong and very descriptive toward the drivers thoughts and feelings for the dead deer. It wasn’t very sad because thats what happens sometimes in life and wilderness…accidents! But I think that the driver made the right decision to knock the deer off the edge because the deer was dead and so then it would not get run over or cause any accidents to any other drivers who would pass by it and not see it… I think that it was the best thing to do….

  11. Gracie says:

    i think that he is cruel to do such a thing he should have called an animal reascue agency because they would have come and take it away and probably cut the fawn out of the doe’s stomach

  12. Mickel-Ann says:

    Traveling Through the Dark though seemingly straightforward and “literal” questions that of the value of life and to a lesser extent the treatment of death. Clearly this individual isn’t instinctively an inhumane individual ” my fingers touching her side brought me the reason her side was warm: her faun lay there waiting” as well as others instances where the individual contemplates the next move. He weighs in on the fact that” she was large in the belly” and whatever was inside was ‘alive”. The average, ego driven, self centered individual would not have taken the time to notice these things instead the deer being “lesser” than him would have been more that happy “to roll it into the canyon”.

    Stafford through his creative use of language and detailed description, seemingly hints at and seeks to highlight human nature at it’s best especially when there is no one else there only “the wilderness”.

    Clearly the persona is of the opinion that one death especially that of an animal should not cause the death of another and so though compassionate he joins the masses, that majority of the society who at some point or another have come across a deer or other animal of the wild along a narrow road and has done what they have and “pushed her over into the edge of the river”.

  13. Tori says:

    He is traveling at night, or through the dark, on a narrow road, when he finds a dead doe on the side of the road. He says,” It is usually best to roll them into the canyon: that road is narrow, to swerve might make more dead.” So, of course, he gets out of his car to roll it into the canyon. He notices that it is a doe and she is pregnant. Her body is stiff and cold, but he touches her stomach and it is warm. Now, he has realized that the fawn is alive, but never to be born. He sits there thinking of weather or not to roll her and her unborn fawn into the canyon. He has to make a choice: roll the doe and her unborn fawn into the canyon, or leave them there. If he leaves them there, the baby might have a chance of being born, but it could also cause someone to swerve and wreck or die. Eventually, he pushes her over the edge into the river.
    I think that this poem is about making choices. Some choices we don’t want to make, we have to; such as in the poem. The choices we make can be very important, or they can be less significant. Even though some choices might not make that much of a difference in the world, they can still affect us, and the things around us. In the poem, he had to make the decision of weather or not to push the deer into the canyon. He does because it could affect the people. If he had left it, someone might have to swerve around it, and they might wreck and get injured or even die. If he had left it, the animals would be affected too. Some might want to eat it and get hit. I think he made the right decision. This poem has a good message behind it- make the decisions you think are not only good for you, but for everything else it might affect.

  14. Luke says:

    A superficial view of life’s problems is often the easiest way to exist. ‘Swerving’, or deviating from that view often pushes against the current of common thought. This experience can be troubling because it forces a person to think independently. In William Stafford’s poem Traveling through the dark the author is untroubled when he finds a dead deer on the side of a canyon road. He accepts it as a common experience, stating “it is usually best to roll them into the canyon.” He then immediately warns us that “to swerve (or to think more deeply about something) might make more dead”
    Though initially this may seem like a semi-twisted poem by a man with nothing better to do than to write about his experiences about road kill. If you take a deeper look into the poem, as the poet satirically advises us not to do, you will see that the poet has many meanings in the poem, some intended and some un-intended. At the beginning of the poem when he first finds the deer it is really no big deal and there is no thinking necessary, all that needs t be done is the normal, conformist thing. Then we see that there are different circumstances than normal, the doe that has been killed has a baby still living inside of it. This forces us to try and actually think about things, or as the poet puts it, we have to ‘swerve’.
    Then after the deer is dumped into the river, with the baby still in it we are forced to begin to think about why the speaker would just kill an innocent baby. Could it have been saved? If he had been able to get the baby out of the womb would it have made any difference? Could the child have made it in the wild with no mother to guide it? While I do believe that the speaker does the right thing in getting rid of the deer so that no one else will be troubled by it, I think that he gets rid of it for the wrong reason. Although the poem actually states “I thought hard for us all” we really don’t get the feeling that he has thought about the consequences for everyone, even though he tries to convince himself that he has. All he really wants to do is get back to the safety and warmth of his car and go back to not thinking about things while just doing the routine thing.
    The poet seems to be mocking this behavior. It seems he is saying that most of the time you can follow the usual way that things are done because there are people who have been there before you and they have done the thinking and found the best easiest way so now you don’t have to. This actually seems to be the way that Stafford (the poet) functioned in life. While he was known for his generally accepting attitude and conformist views he still thought for himself when things became important. For example he was a conscientious objector during World War Two.
    His way of looking at life may be the easiest way of all ways to look at life; you do what everyone else does unless it is a matter of importance. The problem with this is how do you know when something is a matter of importance? Does it become important if you can benefit from it? Does it become important when other peoples lives or feelings are at stake? According to this poem it becomes important when it is convenient to you. The speaker wants to get back into his car so he stops thinking about the baby and just does what he always does.
    Isn’t this the easiest way to go about life? We just do things to our benefit and only help people when it is convenient for us. In all truth it is the easiest way. As long as you can convince other people that you actually care about what happens to them, even though you don’t. Then they will help you when you are in distress. Although this may be the easiest way to go about life, especially if your goal in life is to just get through life, it is not necessarily the best way. The simple truth is that it becomes very difficult to lead a full life while just conforming to common thought or thinking on your own too much. If you just conform to common thought you would lose your individuality sooner or later. If you just think for yourself, refusing always to conform to common thought you’re going to get a lot of people angry with you who think you are an idiot. For example, you cannot say that you think Charles Dickens or William Shakespeare were bad writers because they don’t hold your attention well. On things like that it is best to just conform even if you can’t understand why they are great authors so that people won’t think of you as uneducated.
    The simple truth is that everyone, regardless of whether they will admit it or not, needs people in their lives to have a full and enjoyable life. This poem may not be telling us that directly, but it does tell us that we need to think for ourselves while conforming in some areas also, and we can draw our own conclusions about why this would be a good thing to do.

  15. Ashley says:

    This poem is an analysis of nature. In order for nature to reproduce, humans have to help support and upkeep the living of nature. Nature fights against itself not people. We as humans have to take care of nature not kill it, or abandon it. This poem is a significant example of how humans are destroying nature. Someone shot a deer and killed it leaving it there with no hope. William Stafford did an excellent job of defying expressionism.

  16. Alana says:

    I thought that this poem was nice, it was fulfilling. It was about a man who found a dead pregnant doe on the side of the road and didn’t know what to do. I am sure that we all can relate to this, whether it was passing by a deer or hitting a deer. Very personal poem. – I love it!

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