In his poem, “Traveling Through the Dark,” William Stafford presents the reader with the difficulty of one man?s choice. Immediately, the scene is set, with the driver, who is “traveling though the dark” (line 1) coming upon a recently killed deer. At first, his decision with what to do with the deer is easy; he knows he must push it off the edge for the safety of other motorists, but then, a closer examination of the deer reveals to the man new circumstances. His decision is now perplexing, and his course of action is unclear. Through his use of metaphor, symbolism, and personification, Stafford alludes to the difficult decisions that occur along the road of life, and the consequences that are a result from those decisions. With the use of these stylistic devices, William Stafford illuminates death as a consequence of certain decisions.
To illustrate the theme of death, Stafford presents a metaphor relating the literal road to the road of life. In the first stanza, the road is described; it is narrow and is called the “Wilson river Road” (line 2). Also, the reader gets the sense that the road is very dark, and thus isolated. The only illuminated section of this road is the stretch that the man is currently travelling. Symbolically, this represents the present in the man?s life. The road that has already been traveled symbolizes the past. The man is unable to see it because of the darkness; yet, it is implanted in his memory through his experiences. Furthermore, the man literally cannot see farther ahead on this road, only as far as the headlights will allow. Likewise, the future in our lives is yet to be discovered. As one can see, Stafford?s metaphorical description of the road in “Travelling Through the Dark” parallels one?s journey along the path of life. In this poem though, Stafford deals with stopping along the path of life, not travelling along it. The deceased deer is what forces the man to stop along the road, and death in general is what causes humans to stop along their path and take time to make decisions.
One main way the theme of death is illustrated is through symbolism of the deer, canyon, and river. The deer is a roadblock which must be dealt with before the man can continue on his journey. He cannot simply push death to the side of the road. Here, the deer would rot and fester; instead, as Stafford states in the first stanza, ” it is usually best to roll them into the canyon” (line 3). The way to deal with this problem is to discard of it immediately and to not hesitate at all. Literally, this is true for the safety of other motorists. Furthermore, it is necessary to deal properly with this problem so one can continue on their path in life. The canyon, and river at the bottom, therefore come to symbolize the depth of our individual souls; we push problems into our souls, and slowly deal with them. By doing this, our problems and death, may be symbolically washed away.
Another way the decisions made when stopping along the road of life are symbolized is through Stafford?s use of the double entendre “swerving” (lines 4, 17). Literally, when explaining why the man should move the deer, Stafford writes, “to swerve [in a car] might make more dead” (line 4). This also refers to a swerve in judgement. If the man makes a swerve in his decision, it has consequences, and may cause problems, or maybe even death. The second time Stafford uses “swerve,” it is much more apparent that he is referring to judgement. He says, “I thought hard for us all ? my only swerving” (line 17). Because of the circumstances of the deer?s death, namely that it?s fawn is still alive inside it, the man?s decision is extremely difficult, and he hesitates to think. Stafford marks the importance of these references to “swerving” by marking them both with use of caesura. Through this, Stafford illustrates the importance of this symbolism and of the moment. This is where the character of the man is developed. In deciding what to do with the deer and its fawn, the man “[hesitates] beside that mountain road]” (line 12]. Here, the reader expects that the man will do the noble thing and somehow save the fawn. Rather though, the man and Stafford surprise the reader with the man?s action of throwing the deer?s corpse, along with its unborn fawn tragically into the canyon. This is his “swerving” which causes death (of the fawn), and adds to Stafford?s theme of how decisions along the road of life may cause death.
During the man?s hesitation, Stafford?s personification of the car and wilderness further develop the poem. In the forth stanza, Stafford describes the factors which influence the man during his decision. The unnatural objects in the scene impatiently await the man?s return and expediate him along in his decision-making. To show this, Stafford uses personification of the car. It “aimed ahead its lowered parking lights” (line 13), and “under the hood purred the steady engine” (line 14). Also, the man feels somewhat pressured by his car. He “[stands] in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red” (line 15). The car does not care about the difficulty in this decision; it wants to keep moving. In this way, the car symbolizes our inner drive to progress in life and get ahead on the road of life. Much like the car, the wilderness is personified as well. But, it does not rush the man in his decision. Rather, it waits, and the man can “hear the wilderness listen” (line 16). Now, the man must make his decision, taking into account all factors. This personification adds to the development of the poem, and illustrates how we are all influenced in our decisions.
Through his explanation and description throughout this poem, Stafford creates the image of the road of life and illustrates how the decisions we make are all interrelated and have consequences. “Travelling Through the Dark” reveals the difficulty in life, and the difficulty in properly dealing with problems that naturally occur as one progresses along the path of life. The biggest roadblock that can occur along this progression is death, which must be properly dealt with, as William Stafford proves by way of his uses of metaphor, symbolism, and personification.