Text: Dennis W. Eddings, “Shadow and Substance in “Eldorado’,” Masques, Mysteries and Mastodons: A Poe Miscellany (2006), pp. 17-23 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 17, unnumbered:]


Dennis W. Eddings

Poe’s “Eldorado” (1849) is deceptively brief, deceptively straightforward. Avoiding the stylistic pitfalls that mar much of his other poetry — tortured syntax, jangling meter, discordant rhyme, banal repetition — “Eldorado” attains an expressive perfection that places it alongside “To Helen” as Poe’s finest poetic effort. Commentary on the poem, however, has not done its true complexity justice. There is no question that its immediate cause was the excitement generated by the California gold rush. Thomas O. Mabbott even suggests that Poe, “at least in imagination,” may have considered joining the frenzied throng that invaded the goldfields (M 1:461). As to meaning, the most common view is that the poem symbolizes the search for the Ideal and the necessary courage in pursuing that quest. A variation of this reading argues that Eldorado represents death, reflecting Poe’s belief that the Ideal can be found only in the timeless realm beyond physical existence. Other commentators would have us view “Eldorado” ironically as Poe’s means of calling into question “romantic aspiration” and its futility.(1) There is far more wealth in this poem, however, than has been suggested. As with “To Helen” and “Israfel,” “Eldorado” is about poetry, the human limitations that make the creation of poetry so difficult, and the role of the imagination in overcoming these limitations.

The opening stanza suggests that we see the knight as representative of the questing poet. He has “journeyed long, / Singing a song.” Not untypical of Romantic quest poems, the exact object of his search is vague and suggestive rather than specific and concrete. It is subsumed under the reverberative connotation of “Eldorado,” a singular word conjuring up a myriad of meanings. Indeed, the very richness of potential meaning implies that what really matters is the quest itself. Mabbott, in identifying the knight as poet, indicates as much. Speaking of those who seek beauty, truth, and the Ideal, Mabbott says, “In the face of every adversity, even death itself, they ride boldly, singing a song. This is our poet himself at his best, and what we wish to be. Even in defeat, the gallant and bold find Eldorado” (M 1:461).

Our initial encounter with the bold knight finds him journeying “In sunshine and in shadow.” Stephen W. Sanderlin appropriately points out that the same image occurs in “Israfel” (p. 191): “And the shadow of thy perfect bliss / Is the sunshine of ours.” The knight/poet of [page 18:] “Eldorado” is in the same predicament as the earth-bound poet of “Israfel.” He too is imaginatively aware of a perfection he cannot attain because of his limited human nature. The sunshine and shadow he encounters are the equivalents of the “Israfel” poet’s world of “sweets and sours,” a world of contradiction that speaks of human limitations and the psychological turmoil they create for the Romantic quest of the Ideal. Indeed, I suggest that the sunshine and shadow of “Eldorado” and the “sweets and sours” of “Israfel” merge with the “desperate seas” of “To Helen” in depicting Poe’s view of the all-too-human poet’s plight. I would go even farther by suggesting that our first encounter with the knight occurs at a fairly specific point in his career. Although he is not at the beginning stage of Walt Whitman’s “outsetting bard” — he has, after all, “journeyed long” — he still reflects a youthful optimism, one able to accept the sunshine and shadow and travel through them “Singing a song.” The poem’s very meter enhances that idealistic, youthful optimism.

The knight’s situation grows more ominous in the second stanza. As he ages, the quest so hopefully sung of in the first stanza begins to appear futile. Thus the shadow becomes predominant, blotting out the sunshine of the hopeful journey just as the shadow of Poe’s “ungainly fowl” blots out hope for the narrator in “The Raven.” At this point the cheerful meter works against the poem, creating a disquieting tension between the knight’s despair and its lilting expression. Those who read “Eldorado” ironically point to the disparity between message and meter as indicative of Poe’s ironic intent. Another way of viewing this tension is that it reflects the sunshine and shadow of the first stanza. Cheerfulness and despair, sunshine and shadow — these are the realities faced by the humanly limited poet, a fact Poe was very well aware of in 1849. The poet needs a means of converting the shadow of despair into the sunshine of creation; a means of creating from his despair poetry whose very existence celebrates the human capacity to transcend imaginatively transcend that which threatens to pull him down. “Eldorado,” as poem, is such a celebration, made possible through Poe’s masterful manipulation of the word “shadow” — a manipulation that converts what seems to symbolize the problem into that which symbolizes the answer.

“Shadow” occurs at the end of the third line in each stanza. It functions as the pivot around which the preceding and following two lines revolve. “Shadow” is also the word Poe chooses to rhyme with “Eldorado.” Thus “shadow,” which on the surface appears to denote [page 19:] the negative, is linked through the rhyme with “Eldorado,” the positive. This linking rhyme creates an echo of the contrary sunshine and shadow of the first stanza and the metrical tension that arises in the second.

Furthermore, “shadow” changes meaning as the poem progresses, reflecting the alterations that occur within the knight. Noting these changes, Sanderlin identifies the shadow in stanza one as literal. He then states that the shadow in stanza two is figurative, “referring to the dark weights that oppress the soul as life swiftly passes along.” The third shadow is then personified, seeming to be “the Angel of Death himself” (p. 189). Floyd Stovall follows the same progression, but suggests that there are four changes: shade, a symbol of doubt, a “Platonic equivalent of unreality,” and, finally, death.(2) The meaning of “shadow” does indeed change within the poem, but not in the manner Sanderlin and Stovall suggest.

Its first appearance, obviously literal, passes by without calling attention to itself. Yet even here there are metaphoric reverberations of the blending of good and ill that speak of human limitations and the inborn desire to transcend them. “Shadow’s” appearance in the second stanza is figurative, suggesting the shadow of despair. But it is also introductory to the pilgrim shadow of stanza three. The shadow that falls over the knight in stanza two, I think, is both the shadow of despair and the shadow that steps forth in the third stanza, the one leading inevitably to the other.

Such a reading requires that we see “shadow” as the truly important symbol here, as is suggested by its rhyming link to Eldorado. In Western literature “shadow” is traditionally symbolic of gloom, despair, and often death. Poe frequently uses it in this negative sense, e.g., in “Shadow: A Parable” and the raven’s shadow overwhelming that poem’s narrator. If Eldorado symbolizes hope and aspiration, shadow would then seem to symbolize their opposites. This is precisely the suggestion of sunshine and shadow in stanza one and the shadow of despair in stanza two. But shadow is also a projection, or, in Jungian terms, a double, and this connotation points to a positive meaning operating concurrently with its negative suggestion.

As a projection, shadow is an image of self and can be seen as symbolic of the imagination. Kent Ljungquist has demonstrated that the notion of terror as a source of the sublime led to an emphasis on subjectivity and the search for symbols “that would represent the private, shadowy recesses of the human imagination.” One such symbol is “shadow”: “The word ‘shadow’ itself came to represent a [page 20:] hidden, buried layer of human consciousness.”(3) In Romantic aesthetics, in other words, shadow is an accepted symbol of the imagination, especially in its association with the sublime. It is precisely this association that Poe explores in “Eldorado.”

The knight’s despair in the second stanza, symbolized by the negative meaning of shadow, triggers a sense of dread, leading to the imaginative awareness of the sublime, a second, positive meaning. The process is exactly that propounded by Kant’s argument, as paraphrased by Ljungquist, that the sublime “could not be located in nature because the sublime response was the mental capacity to transcend the world of sensations. Discomfort results because sublime transport is impossible in the realm of sensations. Delight comes from the capacity to transcend the sensuous world by a leap of the imagination” (p. 23). Seeing the knight’s journey in these terms fully establishes its relationship with “To Helen.” Just as Helen’s beauty is the catalyst triggering the “weary, wayworn wanderer’s” imagination, so the shadow in stanza two of “Eldorado” is the knight’s projection of self, his imagination. Just as the imaginative response to beauty in “To Helen” brings the poet “home” to a timeless realm where Greece and Rome coexist, so the knight’s imagination opens up vistas of a timeless realm to him. The validity of seeing shadow in these terms is established in the third stanza.

There is nothing concrete to suggest the shadow in this stanza is the “Angel of Death” or “Platonic unreality.” What is stated precisely is that it is a “pilgrim shadow.” This precision points to the pilgrim shadow’s identity. The shadow, like the knight, is a pilgrim. What is really encountered is the knight’s shadow. The sunshine of his aspiration throws forth the knight’s emanation, leading to the key question, “Where can it be — / This land of Eldorado?” Asking the question of his own shadow, of his own imagination, leads the knight to the answer. Eldorado is to be found within. Just as the earth-bound poet’s imagination enables him to conceive of the Angel Israfel, the earth-bound knight’s imagination enables him to conceive of and pursue Eldorado.

Such a reading opens a new view of the fourth stanza and the meaning of “shadow” within it. The “Mountains of the Moon” were supposedly the source of the Nile, their actual existence not being established by Western man until they were visited by Sir Henry Stanley in 1888. In 1849, as Poe was well aware, they represented “a type of the utterly remote” (M 1:464). Sanderlin reads the reference as [page 21:] signifying the impossible quest, the knight being “advised to make a journey in regions the very existence of which is open to question” (p. 191). Eric W. Carlson views the mountains of the Moon as representing the “seemingly impossible obstacles” that stand in the way of “the lifelong struggle to realize the ideal. . . .” (p. 232). Two other possibilities arise, however. If we take the statement literally, it says that Eldorado is not to be found on earth. It lies beyond the moon; one must, after all, ride “Over” the mountains, not to them, to find Eldorado. This phrasing suggests precisely the spaceless, timeless realm in “Dream-Land,” Eureka, and the philosophical tales. Figuratively, the statement implies that the poetic quest can only be accomplished from the self, from within. The Mountains of the Moon can be reached only through the imagination.

My reading is supported through the final appearance of “shadow.” To reach and go beyond the Mountains of the Moon, one must “Ride, boldly ride” “Down the Valley of the Shadow.” Reverberations of the 23rd Psalm are obvious, and seem to support those who read Eldorado as symbolizing death. Another meaning, however, is suggested by Mabbott. Noting that the common translation is “valley of the shadow of death,” he goes on to show that “valley of darkness” is a preferable alternative (M 1:464-465). Poe’s version of the phrase — “the Valley of the Shadow” — fits this reading. It not only allows him to keep the word “shadow” in its proper place, but it also opens up the word to echoes that go beyond the singular idea of death that would be present if he used the usual interpretation. Consistent with the figurative meaning of “shadow” in the third stanza, the “Valley of the Shadow” in stanza four can be seen as symbolizing the imagination, the interior valley that must be explored if one is to ride boldly through the perils of physical existence in the quest for higher aspiration.

“Eldorado,” in other words, makes the same statement as “Israfel” and “To Helen.” It depicts a frail humanity all too aware of its frailty.But it also insists that humanity can, through the imagination, catch glimpses of a perfection lying beyond human frailty. Such glimpses sustain us as we struggle with our earth-bound life. The echoes of the 23rd psalm point in this direction. The fourth verse reads, “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.” The lines do not offer comfort to a man who is dying; they offer comfort to a man who must continue to live in a world of terror and evil. It is the valley of the shadow of death that is traversed, not death itself. Poe’s version [page 22:] of this verse says that the poet can confront all fears and keep going because of his faith, because he is comforted by the rod and staff of his own poetic imagination.

We may easily identify Eldorado with the realm of the Ideal that, for Poe, exists “Out of Space — out of Time.” We may just as readily take the ideal a step further and identify Eldorado with death which releases man from the space and time constraints of physical reality that prevent him from achieving the Ideal. Both views are consistent with Poe’s beliefs. To stop there, however, is to ignore the poem’s all-important last line, which does not say that following the route set forth by the pilgrim shadow will lead to Eldorado. Instead, that is the route to be followed if the search is to be continued. I do not believe, as Sanderlin suggests, that the conditional “if” calls into question the validity of the quest itself (p. 191). Nor do I believe that it questions the knight’s courage to pursue the quest. Rather, it points the way to continuing on. “If you seek the Ideal,” the shade says, “have faith in the validity of the vision that set you forth in the first place.” Just as the Lord’s rod and staff comfort the singer of the psalms in the midst of despair, so the knight/poet’s imagination sustains him.

“Eldorado,” then, does not just depict a physical journey through the material universe. There is also a spiritual journey through the self. The poem resulting from that quest celebrates the ability of the imagination to help man bear the pain and suffering that are natural parts of life. This implication can best be seen by recognizing that greatest significance in “Eldorado” is the very fact of its existence.

The poem itself is an example of how the poet can convert the dross of physical reality into an imaginative vision. Although “Eldorado” may have its inspiration in the Gold Rush of 1849, what really matters is how Poe converted the physical inspiration into an imaginative poem. Poe saw the gold rush as another example of man’s madness, anotherexample of man’s reliance upon earthly realities as a means of attaining happiness. Gold fever revealed man’s refusal to recognize his slavery to physical existence, a point Poe made in a letter to F. W. Thomas (O 427):

Talking of gold and of the temptations at present held out to “poor-devil authors”, did it ever strike you that all that is really valuable to a man of letters — to a poet in especial — is absolutely unpurchasable? Love, fame, the dominion of intellect, the consciousness of power, the thrilling sense of beauty, the free air of Heaven, exercise of body [page 23:] & mind, with the physical and moral health which result — these and such as these are really all that a poet cares for: — then answer me this — why should he go to California?

Grubbing in the earth is an apt image of how man grubs in physical nature for reality, never realizing that he should turn his eyes skyward (or inward) and see. The poet, the imaginative man, sees beyond the surface into the truth. The poet sees that real gold, real wealth, is found in the revelations of the imagination. The fools who go to California will find only fool’s gold. The poet need not go to California for gold. Hearing of the gold rush, he can recreate it in Fordham and profit far more from the recreation than the miner who traverses the continent on a futile search. “Eldorado,” as poem, is living proof of the recreation of physical reality into an imaginative reality that transcends its physical base. Poe’s poem is, in its very existence as poem, living proof of the idea within it. As such, it is pure gold indeed.



1.  The standard “idealistic” reading is advanced by Eric W. Carlson, “Poe’s ‘Eldorado’,” MLN 76 (1961) 232-234. Oral Summer Coad advances the thesis that Eldorado symbolizes death in “The Meaning of Poe’s ‘Eldorado,’” MLN 59 (1944) 59-61. The ironic view is advanced by W. Stephen Sanderlin, Jr., in “Poe’s ‘Eldorado’ Again,” MLN 71 (1956) 189-192. For a more light-hearted reading, see Burton R. Pollin, “Poe’s ‘Eldorado’ Viewed as a Song of the West,” Prairie Schooner 46 (1972) 228-235.

2.  Edgar Poe the Poet: Essays New and Old on the Man and His Work. (Charlottesville, 1969) p. 225.

3.  The Grand and the Fair: Poe’s Landscape Aesthetics and Pictorial Techniques. (Potomac, Md., 1984) p. 25.






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