By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Eldorado’, a poem by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), was published in the Flag of Our Union in Boston in April 1849, just six months before Poe’s death. In ‘Eldorado’, a knight goes in search of Eldorado, that golden paradise. But the knight grows old without ever finding that fabled city. And then he meets a shade which tells him where he can find Eldorado. Before we offer some words of analysis, here’s the text of the poem.
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.
But he grew old—
This knight so bold—
And o’er his heart a shadow—
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.
And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow—
‘Shadow,’ said he,
‘Where can it be—
This land of Eldorado?’
‘Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,’
The shade replied,—
‘If you seek for Eldorado!’
In summary, ‘Eldorado’ is a short narrative poem about a knight who goes on a quest to find the fabled land of Eldorado, a golden paradise. The knight grows old without ever having found Eldorado. He then meets a shade, which tells him where he can find Eldorado, and commands the knight to ride over the Mountains of the Moon and down the Valley of the Shadow.
‘Eldorado’ references El Dorado, that fabled land in the Americas, which Spanish travellers believed lay in the western part of the New World. Numerous explorers and travellers from Europe – including the English sailor and tobacco enthusiast, Sir Walter Raleigh – went in search of El Dorado, the ‘golden land’, but they never found it. It didn’t exist.
That was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But in 1849, when Poe wrote ‘Eldorado’, there was a new quest for gold: the Californian ‘gold rush’ of that year. 1849 was the year that the Gold Rush was at its height, a fact that has been immortalised in the name of a local football team, the San Francisco 49ers.
How much of this contemporary context (contemporary for Poe, anyway) directly inspired ‘Eldorado’, and how much of it was unconscious, or how much was even completely incidental, it’s difficult to ascertain. However, Poe was no stranger to responding to and incorporating contemporary news items and events into his work, as his short fiction attests.
‘Eldorado’ is written in regular stanzas of six lines each, rhymed aabccb. The same b rhyme is used in each of the four stanzas: ‘shadow’ and ‘Eldorado’. This gives these two key words the force of a refrain, like in a song, and like a number of Poe’s greatest poems, ‘Eldorado’ bears the influence of the ballad.
However, note that these two repeated words, ‘shadow’ and ‘Eldorado’, alter in significance each time they are repeated. That ‘shadow’, in particular, becomes gradually more sinister: in the first stanza it refers simply to the complement of ‘sunshine’, in the second it denotes a growing sense of unease, in the third it refers to the mysterious ghostly ‘shade’ which appears to the knight and speaks to him, and in the final stanza it becomes capitalised, as ‘Shadow’, where it resonates with deathly meaning. ‘Down the Valley of the Shadow’ summons the 23rd Psalm from the Bible:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Although those last two words, ‘of death’, are left out of Poe’s allusion to them in ‘Eldorado’, they are heavily implied. The meaning is clear: the only way the knight will find this mysterious land of Eldorado is through dying.
We can analyse or interpret this in two ways: either the shadow is saying that heaven is the only ‘golden land’ and so we must die to reach ‘Eldorado’, or else the shadow is mocking the knight’s hubris in trying to locate such a place, and declaring that the only destination that such a quest will lead to is the grave.
In conclusion, the poem is a moral warning to those seeking earthly gain through gold (which is what the land of Eldorado represents). The only reward is heavenly rather than earthly, and will be gained through death.
It is significant, in this connection, that the shade which speaks with the knight is described as a ‘pilgrim shadow’ (emphasis added): it suggests a religious quester rather than one who goes in quest of gold. The fact that it is a ‘shade’ suggests a ghost, someone who has passed over to the spiritual world, and who comes back to communicate – or possibly to warn – the knight that he should pursue spiritual rewards rather than monetary ones.