‘Eldorado’ by Edgar Allan Poe is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines, or sextets. These sextets follow a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of AABCCB, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit. There are two lines of this piece that end the same way, all the way through the poem. Lines three and six end with the rhyming words “shadow” and “Eldorado” in all four stanzas. This creates a refrain that adds a haunting musical quality to the lines by enhancing the rhythm.
In regards to the meter, the lines are less consistent. The stanzas do not follow specific metrical patterns. Instead, they shuffle between iambic dimeter and trimeter. For almost all the stanzas, lines one, two, four and five are in iambic dimeter. This means that each line contains two sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed.
The remaining two lines are different. The first, second and third stanzas contain seven syllables, with a hanging, unpaired unstressed syllable at the end. This holds true until the final stanza in which the pattern is trochaic tetrameter. The lines “Down the Valley of the Shadow,” and “‘If you seek for Eldorado!’” each have four sets of four beats. The first of these is stressed and the second unstressed.
Eldorado is thought to be one of Poe’s final poems. It was published in 1849, around the time of the gold rush. This context might’ve informed Poe in his construction of the wealth/paradise seeking “gallant knight.”
Summary of Eldorado
The poem begins with the speaker stating that there was a knight who had spent his whole life journeying through “sunshine and …shadow.” He was seeking out the lost paradise city of Eldorado, rumoured to contain endless amounts of gold. Although he searched for years and years, the knight never found the city.
In the middle of the poem the speaker describes how the knight’s strength was starting to fail him. He was becoming quite old and was about to die. This is when he encounters a shade along the road. This person, or perhaps ghost of the afterlife, told him that one can only reach Eldorado through death. It requires walking in lands such as the “valley of the shadow of death” from the Bible.
Analysis of Eldorado
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.
In the first stanza of the poem the speaker introduces a “gallant knight.” The knight is said to be “Gaily bedight.” This strange word is not in common use and refers simply to “being dressed.” He is dressed gaily, or in colourful clothing. He is also stereotypically knightly in his bravery.
The man is going on a trip. It is through “sunshine and shadow,” aka, through dark places and bright, cheerful places. Already, he has been journeying for a long time. But, he is still in high spirits. This is seen through Poe’s assertion that the man is “Singing a song.” The knight’s goal is very simply stated in the sixth line. He is looking for the lost city of Eldorado.
Eldorado is commonly thought to have been a city located in South America. Explorers have been seeking it out for over 500 years to no avail. The main allure of the place was that it was meant to be entirely made of, or containing vast riches of, gold. There are also some legends which speak of the city as a social paradise.
With this piece of information, it is easy to see why the knight has been travelling for a long time. It is likely that he is going to be traveling for a lot longer, and will never get where he is going.
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.
This seems to be coming true as in the second stanza the speaker starts that the knight “grew old.” His journey did not come to an end as he had hoped. Rather, he is still traveling, and now is near death. He had at one point been “so bold” as to set out on this adventure. But now, things are not looking so hopeful.
Darkness, which is a constant image in this text, falls over the knight’s heart. It blocks out any light and hope that might’ve remained there. It is caused entirely by the fact that there is “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?’
Finally, in the third stanza, the knight reaches the threshold of the end of his journey. His strength which has taken him so far, is on the verge of failing him. But then, something changes. He meets a “pilgrim shadow.”
There are no details about who this person is or where they are making their pilgrimage to. In fact, the poem’s tone is so haunting that it is very likely this person is not actually alive. Perhaps, they are a ghost the knight has encounter on his new journey, into the afterlife.
The knight does not address the mysterious nature of this person and instead asks him his most pressing question, “‘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!’
The reply the “shade” gives him is less than helpful, but it does allude to the knight’s current state of being. It also speaks to the larger theme of the poem, the futility of pursuing one’s dreams.
At first the directions seem like they might lead somewhere. The being tells him that he has to go “Over the Mountains,” But then, it takes another turn. The mountains are on the moon. He must then ride “Down the Valley of the Shadow.” This line is a very clear reference to Psalm 23:4 which refers to walking through the valley of the shadow of death. In regards to the mountains, they too are connected to something outside the poem’s immediate purview. The place, “Mountains of the Moon,” was thought at one time to be the source of the Nile River. The “moon” aspect came from their snow covered peaks.
From these lines a reader can interpret the knight’s search to be one that is entirely futile. Eldorado is a place one can only reach through death, or one that will bring death down upon the explorer.