Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. T. O. Mabbott), “Eldorado,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. I: Poems (1969), pp. 461-465 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 461:]


This is 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. The moral — for it has one — is brought in so subtly, one hardly knows it is there. The subject, for all the references to the past, is still the present; the occasion is the gold rush to California. It is only on the surface a lighthearted lyric.(1) It is the song of discovery of those who seek for the true gold, for beauty, for truth, for the ideal. 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.

Men of every kind went off to the gold fields, including many men of letters; one of Poe's publishers, Israel Post, found death on the way. Poe must, at least in imagination, have considered making the journey. But he wrote to F. W. Thomas on February 14, 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.”

Poe's story “Von Kempelen and His Discovery” was one result [page 462:] of his interest in the events of ’49. On a higher level these events inspired “Eldorado.” However immediate the occasion of Poe's composition, he also had in mind something he had read long before in a chapter called “Tom o’ Bedlams” in Isaac D’Israeli's Curiosities of Literature.(2) Those harmless madmen who wandered about England begging we all know about from King Lear, III, iv, where Edgar pretends to be one of them.

D’Israeli quotes a “Tom-a-Bedlam Song,” from Wit and Drollery (1661). The seventh stanza reads:

With a heart of furious fancies,

Whereof I am commander:

With a burning spear,

And a horse of air,

To the wilderness I wander;

With a knight of ghosts and shadows,

I summoned am to Tourney:

Ten leagues beyond

The wide world's end;

Methinks it is no journey!

D’Israeli adds, “The last stanza of this Bedlam song contains the seeds of exquisite romance; a stanza worth many an admired poem.” Poe quoted the first half of it as the motto for his tale “Hans Pfaal” in the manuscript version of 1835 and again in the final revision in the Works of 1850 (I, 1). The second part inspired “Eldorado.” A tourney is properly a fight to the death, and the journey is short, for it is performed “in the twinkling of an eye” (I Corinthians 15:52).

Also significant is the following from Poe's review, in the Broadway Journal of July 12, 1845, of Henry B. Hirst's Coming of the Mammoth. Discussing Hirst's “Unseen River” (which had been published first in the Broadway Journal of May 31), Poe says: “By the river always heard but never seen, until the traveller is overtaken by death, it is the poet's intention to typify happiness.” Hirst's poem may have been a contributory inspiration for Poe.

The meter for “Eldorado” is that of “The Man for Galway,” a [page 463:] song quoted in Charles Lever's Charles O’Malley (Dublin, 1841), chapter cxii; Poe reviewed the book in Graham's for March 1842.


(A) Boston Flag of Our Union for April 21, 1849; (B) Works (1850), II, 45. The text used is B. There are no verbal variants; A used single quotation marks in the last two stanzas, but that was merely because of the style sheet of the printers of the Flag.

[page 464:]


Title:  According to a story current from the sixteenth century on, somewhere in the region of what is now Colombia in South America there was or had been a ruler who was covered with gold, and he was called El Dorado, “the gilded one.” Reputedly, in his domain everything was made of gold and jewels. Naturally many explorers sought for the place, among them Sir Walter Raleigh. By Poe's day “Eldorado” had come to mean a place, the object of search, where gold (or good fortune) was to be found. J. F. Cooper mentioned “the El Dorado of the immigrant” in this sense in 1827, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Poe used the term figuratively in the introduction to his Poems in 1831 and again in 1844 in “Dream-Land,” where he rhymed it with “shadow.” The term was familiar enough so that, as soon as the news arrived in 1848 of the recent discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill and adventurous men began to make the dangerous journey to the far west, “Eldorado” became the universal nickname for California.

Americans usually wrote the title, as Poe did, as one word. Bayard Taylor's book of 1850 on his visit to the gold fields is called Eldorado. An article in Holden's Dollar Magazine for February 1849 cited by Killis Campbell (Poems, p. 286), said: “This word [Eldorado] is in everybody's mouth just now, but we suppose that very few know what it means.” Poe pretty surely did know the romantic story, for there is a reference to the wealth of Eldorado in the eighteenth chapter of Voltaire's Candide; and in Paradise Lost, XI, 409-411, Milton told of “Guiana, whose great city Geryon's sons [Spaniards] / Call El Dorado.”

19-20  The Mountains of the Moon are a type of the utterly remote. They are referred to by Thomas Moore in a note on Lalla Rookh quoting James Bruce: “The Mountains of the Moon or Montes Lunae of antiquity, at the foot of which the Nile is supposed to rise.” They were referred to by Ptolemy and other geographers for centuries, but often were supposed fabulous, since no traveler had visited or even seen them. In the twelfth chapter of his Epicurean (1827), Moore wrote of the “bright tranquillity, which may be imagined to light the slumbers of those happy spirits, who are said to rest in the Valley of the Moon, on their way to heaven.” Poe may possibly allude to that legend too.

The mountains were actually visited by Sir Henry Stanley in 1888. The snowy peaks were seen from afar by Johann Rebmann, linguist and missionary, on May 11, 1848, but no account of this that Poe could have seen has been found.

21  The phrase “valley of the shadow” comes from Psalm 23:4, where the King James version (like the Septuagint, the Aramaic Targum, and the Vulgate) has “valley of the shadow of death.” But there is another possible translation, simply “valley of the shadow [or darkness]” which Poe seems to have known about and apparently preferred. (See notes to “Dream-Land.”) In Hebrew what was anciently written is Z-L-M-V-TH (Tzadi, Lamed, Mem, Van, Tau). The Masoretic punctuation, by which vowels are now indicated in Hebrew, was invented centuries after the composition of most of the Old [page 465:] Testament. Poe in 1836 referred in his “Pinakidia,” number 73, to Masoretic punctuation. Thus with the addition of vowels, the Biblical word may be a compound of zel (shadow) and maveth (death), or a single word, zalmuth (darkness), which is found as an Arabic root. Mr. Abraham Berger, Chief of the Jewish Division, New York Public Library, referred me to E. F. C. Rosenmueller, Scholia in vetus testamentum (Leipzig, 1822), part 4, Psalms, volume II, pages 659f., and other sources, on which this note is based. Many scholars (of all faiths) have preferred the second explanation as more in keeping with the simple pastoral imagery of the Twenty-third Psalm. I think Poe wished his valley in “Eldorado” to be that of life and death.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 461:]

1  See Campbell, Poems (1917), p. 286, for the older literature and Eric W. Carlson in Modern Language Notes, March 1961, on more recent articles by Oral S. Coad and others. Almost all criticism is favorable, but there has been some disagreement about whether the poem is pessimistic or cheerful. Since it seems to me that it is both, I see no reason for further reference to the discussion.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 462:]

2  This source seems to have been first pointed out in my article in the London Mercury, August 1923 (8:414).




In the note to lines 19-20: Valley of the Moon / valley of the Moon (Although Mabbott cites an edition of 1827, the text of this sentence as given is notably diferent in the London edition of that year. There, it reads: “bright tranquillity, which, we may imagine, shines over the sleep of those happy spirits, who are supposed to rest in the Valley of the Moon, on their way to heaven.” The text as Mabbott gives it does appear in later editions, one of which was probably his direct source.


[S:1 - TOM1P, 1969] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions-The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (Eldorado)