The poem by William Stafford, “Traveling Through the Dark” presents readers with an uncomfortable and rather grim instance of the intersection of the natural world and that of man. Technology, in this case cars and the man-made road, are seen as something invasive and harmful in this poem. In order to convey the meaning of the poem “Traveling Through the Dark” by William Stafford uses a conversational style to communicate the theme in the poem of the role of technology in modern life and, more importantly, the theme of man versus nature becomes apparent.
There are multiple ways of perceiving the poem and the tensions between man and technology it presents. One viewpoint, as expressed by Judith Kitchen in her book “Writing the World: Understanding William Stafford“, suggests that the poem by Stafford, “Traveling Through the Dark” demonstrates “the encroachment of mechanized society on the wilderness” (Kitchen). For Kitchen, this poem deceptively simple and straightforward title of the poem by William Stafford, “Travelling Through the Dark” and its conversational style belie an incredibly deep sense of pain and guilt that the narrator suffers through. By examining the way the poem uses language to express these emotions, particularly by looking at the way certain objects take on a life (the car, for instance, which itself “aims” and swerves” as though it is the embodiment of man and technology) Kitchen expresses how the poem by Stafford “Traveling Through the Dark” hides a complex message about man and nature behind deceptively simple phrasing, syntax, and tone. She points out ways in which some very simple word choices in the poem by William Stafford, “Traveling Through the Dark” take on monumental importance, stating, for example, that when the poet refers to the “group” witnessing this event, “The group appears to be the man, the deer, the unborn fawn, and by extension, all of nature” (Kitchen). In short, Judith Kitchen assists the casual reader of this poem to see past the conversational style and into the more metaphorical and implicit meanings of what seem like blunt word and image choices on the part of Stafford.
Kitchen is not alone in her perception of this poem as a statement about the collision of man and technology. In his article, “Traveling Through the Dark: The Wilderness Surrealism of the Far West” by William Young, the images and sounds of machines and nature are at the apex of its meaning. As he points out, “In Stanza Four, we have the juxtaposition of machine and wilderness, complicated by the animal ‘purr’ of the motor and the human listening of the wilderness” (Young 193). While his article examines the role of surrealism in this poem, this lending of human characteristics to nature and machines (and the reverse as well) is part of the surreal quality of the poem. Young is interested in the way the sounds of machines are like those in nature and how some of the same images one finds in nature are part of both humanity and technology simultaneously. In short, Young presents a very broad scope in his discussion of this poem and he looks at the vast nature of the message he suggests Stafford is trying to convey.
As both articles suggest, there is a clear message in the poem about the intersection of man, nature, and technology. The narrator’s car itself is like a character in the poem and as Young suggests, it “purrs” and seems to make its own decisions to swerve. It is careless and driven by something mindless—something not in touch with the more gently representation of nature. It is worth noting that the deer is a doe that is pregnant and is thus nature at its weakest and most vulnerable. The opposition between a motor and a man-made road and the natural world is obvious and the man must push the deer into the river, which is back into the circulation of the natural world. There is a tension here and the poem’s aim is to make the reader see this as a negative encounter. The speaker, as Kitchen suggests, is almost afraid to utter strong words and he skirts around things he might otherwise say in a more blunt fashion, as would fit with the conversational tone of the poem. For instance, instead of saying the deer was pregnant, he says, “I dragged her off, she was large in the belly.” The sense is that it would be too difficult—to human—to suggest she was pregnant. Instead, the narrator puts it in a way we can digest. He cannot come out and discuss the impact of car (technology) on the natural world, but skirts around it and discusses the deer as something entirely different and alien from the man-made elements surrounding her.
The uncomfortable way the narrator describes the event, along with interesting choices of words and phrasing, makes the reader aware that this poem is meant to reflect the idea that this was a negative experience and that man and technology are encroaching on the wilderness and causing harm. The fact that it was not just a deer but a pregnant female deer is important because it shows nature at its most vulnerable. It also shows the way that technology and man feel obligated to “do something” in nature, even if it is a service (like removing a dead deer from the road) and presents the way this is an uncomfortable task as it highlights the tensions between man and nature.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Persistent Themes in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats • Analysis of the Poem “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath • Poem Analysis of “Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas • Analysis of the Poem “Pit Pony” by William Greenway
Young, William. “Traveling through the Dark: The Wilderness Surrealism of the Far West.” Midwest Quarterly 39.2 (1998), 187-201