William Bradford’s “Traveling through the Dark” seems to present its setting in the very title, but further analysis of the poem allows discerning that the “dark” has two shades of meaning. The direct connotation of the dark is the time of the day when the events are happening. The indirect implication is the difficulty of choices people have to make throughout their lives. The central question of the poem is whether one should do the right thing or the morally good one. With the help of carefully crafted imagery and setting, the use of alliteration, personification, and metaphors, and a peculiar rhythmic pattern, the poet presents the picture of desperate hesitation. The readers are left doubting what choice they would have made if they had been in the narrator’s shoes.
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The beginning of the first stanza is quite peaceful, which is conveyed through the conversational tone of the speaker who “found a deer” when “Traveling through the dark” (Bradford line 1). However, immediately after introducing this seemingly pleasant encounter, Bradford goes on to say that the animal is “dead” (2). Such a quick change of action alters the mood of the poem altogether from an optimistic to a pessimistic one. The effect of abrupt scene shift is intensified due to the lack of punctuation between the first two lines. When one sees that the narrator “found a deer” (1), it is highly unlikely that such a continuation of the poem without any comma or full stop can be predicted.
However, a keen reader might notice a slight hint to the sad development of events. The use of the verb “found” (1) instead of ‘I saw’ or ‘I met’ already presupposes that there was some trouble with the animal. Bradford makes an emphasis on the two adjacent, although situated in different lines, words “deer” (1) and “dead” (2) using alliteration. Because both words start with the same consonant sound, a connection between them is more evident. The words “dark” (1), “edge,” and “road” (2), which also contain sound [d], exacerbate the tension of the situation.
Apart from establishing the tone of the poem, the first two lines are also quite informative as to the poem’s setting. The poet lets the audience know what time of the day it is since the narrator is “Traveling through the dark” (1). Also, it is possible to conclude that the road is located in a rural area because of its name, “Wilson River road” (2). The setting is further explained in lines 3-4: the speaker is well aware that “that road is narrow” (3). Hence, one can conclude that he is familiar with the locality. Furthermore, the narrator notes that it is “best to roll them into the canyon” (3), which means that it is not the first time he finds himself in such a situation.
In the last line of the first stanza, the bitter realization of what is to be done is given some explanation. Because “to swerve them might make more dead” (4), it is the best solution for a driver to push the dead animal over the road’s edge. This action, as well as the mentioning of the road, is a metaphorical representation of difficult choices people have to make on their road of life. It is not only this man who has a problem determining his actions at a certain point in life. Every person meets obstacles and stumbles over complicated issues when they travel on the road of their existence. Bradford inspires the readers to think carefully about what they would do in a difficult situation similar to this one.
The second stanza is rich in imagery, focusing on shapes and colors. When the narrator mentions that he was moving “By the glow of the tail-light” (5), a sinister and rather horrifying picture comes to mind. The red color of the car’s tail-light disseminated in the dark reminds of blood and makes one think of the innocent animal that was killed. However, the choice of words to denote the act of taking away the doe’s life focused not on the action but the result. By saying “a recent killing” (6) rather than ‘was killed,’ Bradford makes the animals’ death look instantaneous and active.
Apart from the significance of colors, shapes play an important role in stanza 2 as well. Firstly, it becomes evident that the animal is female – “a doe” (6). Secondly, “she was large in the belly” (8), which prepares the reader for a new turn of events. The use of alliterated sound [s] in stanza 2 creates an ominous mood: “stumbled” (5), “stood” (6), “stiffened” (7). This mood is further developed in the next stanza.
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While the situation with a deer is already sad enough, it being a female made it more dramatic. However, the whole dilemma becomes even more serious when upon “touching her side” (9), the narrator finds out that she is pregnant. The doe is dead, but “her side [is] warm” (10), and her fawn is “waiting” (10) to be born, which is not going to happen. Even though the narrator “hesitated” (12) saying that the baby deer is “never to be born” (11) prepares the reader to the realization of the man’s decision. Still, the hesitation, even if it has not resulted in the deer’s favor, plays a rather significant role in the metaphorical dimension. This instance portrays how people frequently linger “Beside that […] road” (12) and weigh all the pros and cons of some situations before making the final, most important, conclusion.
Stanza 4 and the Final Couplet
Stanza 4 focuses on the unbearable conflict between the narrator’s willingness to do what is good and the necessity to do what is right and what is always done in such cases. The road is very narrow, and it is customary for people of the neighborhood to push dead deer into the river. A special emphasis in this stanza is made on the car, which becomes an active participant in the situation due to the use of personification. The line “The car aimed […] its [lights]” (13) compares the vehicle to a person with a straightforward look. The “purr[…]” (14) of the engine symbolizes the car’s heartbeat.
At this point, the narrator’s desperate hesitation reaches its peak. The whole picture has become so intense that the man can “hear the wilderness listen” (16). The word “swerving” in line 17 resounds with “swerve” in line 4. The speaker reminds one again that disobeying the road’s rules and violating its direction will not bring any good. Hence, he “pushed [the deer] over the edge into the river” (18) just as it has always been done.
The main symbols in the poem are darkness and the road. The dark means both the time of the day and the feelings of fear and uncertainty. Along with the first word of the poem – “Traveling” (1) – darkness symbolizes the difficulties one encounters on the road of life. Hence, the next symbol – the road – means the course of life and people’s actions on it. In the poem, the road is “narrow” (4), which reminds of the complicated positions in which individuals sometimes find themselves. The poem stimulates thinking about the complications on the life’s road, the outcomes of which are frequently impossible to predict.
The poem is written in free verse, but several elements give it metrical order. First of all, there is a clear division into stanzas. Four four-line stanzas and the ending couplet set the metric tone of the poem. Furthermore, despite there being no rhyme, there is a certain feeling of rhythm that is created using similar sounds in lines. For instance, pairs “road” and “dead” (2), “killing” (6) and “belly” (8), and “warm” and “waiting (10) contain such repeated sounds. The choice of the final part’s structure – a couplet rather than a stanza – also seems justified. By making the last constituent shorter than others, the author has created the air of incompleteness. This approach allows more space for readers’ analysis of the poem’s problem in particular and the complicated issues in life in general.
Death is never an easy or pleasant matter, and William Bradford’s “Traveling through the Dark” is a perfect embodiment of how difficult it can be. By using blank verse but adding specific rhythmical effects, the poet portrays how abrupt, disorganized, but still eventually right the course of people’s lives are. The darkness, which is pictured both in the title and throughout the poem, envelops the narrator’s way home as well as his thoughts. The use of metaphors, personification, and alliteration help to visualize the core conflicts the speaker encounters. The setting and imagery of the poem encourage the readers to ponder over crucial choices they sometimes have to make in life.
Stafford, William. “Traveling through the Dark.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature: Reading, Thinking, Writing, 10th ed., edited by Michael Meyer, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013, p. 904.