In observance of National Poetry Month, the Poe Museum will profile a different poem each week in April. The first is one of Poe’s last poems and a favorite of the Poe Museum staff. Poe scholar called “Eldorado” the “noblest of Poe’s poems, the most universal in implication, and the most intensely personal. It is utterly simple, yet rich in suggestion and allusion.” Poe’s biographer Arthur Hobson Quinn, however, thought the poem “is mainly interesting because it reveals once more Poe’s inspiration for a poem through current American events.”
El Dorado is a mythical city of gold hidden somewhere in South America. In the sixteenth century, the Conquistadors searched for it in vain, and the name eventually became synonymous with unattainable goals and treasures. “Eldorado” is not the first time a reference to the city had appeared in Poe’s poetry. In his 1844 poem “Dream-Land,” one stanza reads:
For the heart whose woes are legion
‘Tis a peaceful, soothing region —
For the spirit that walks in shadow
O! it is an Eldorado!
But the traveller, travelling through it,
May not — dare not openly view it;
Never its mysteries are exposed
To the weak human eye unclosed;
So wills its King, who hath forbid
The uplifting of the fringed lid;
And thus the sad Soul that here passes
Beholds it but through darkened glasses.
By the time Poe wrote “Eldorado” in 1849, Eldorado (shortened to one word) was a nickname for California, where fortunes were made and lives, lost during the California Gold Rush. Whether or not Poe ever considered joining the Gold Rush, he wrote his friend F.W. Thomas in February 1849, “I shall be a littérateur, at least, all my life; nor would I abandon the hopes which still lead me on for all the gold in California.” The poem was first published a couple months later in the April 21, 1849 issue of Boston’s The Flag of Our Union. Here is the text:
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!’
We will be profiling a different poem each week during National Poetry Month, so, if you have a favorite Poe poem you would like us to feature, let us know.