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November 29, 2017


Gaily bedight,
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!”

–Edgar Allen Poe, 1849

COMMENTARY: Six months before his death, Edgar Allen Poe published this little poem in a popular Boston newspaper, The Flag Of Our Union (generously digitized by the Library of Congress)–a small-print broadsheet that advertised itself as “miscellany of humor, wit, and romance.” A better description would have been “8th-grade bathroom humor for the antebellum Yankees.” The poem appears on the second page buried among scurrilous joke-stories, the two on either side of it being “The Negro Who Did Not Believe In Ghosts” and “Singular Spelling” (about an old doctor who couldn’t spell “cat”). The fact that a writer as serious and cultivated as Poe was publishing in silly rags, though surprising by contemporary standards, was not unusual before the separation between academic and popular domains of printed literature widened in the 20th century. Poe, like many other writers, published where he could sell his work and shared a page (as well as a readership) with hacks and fops and jesters. There’s something charming and organic about that–all sorts of writing shoved together in a messy commune, like human language is anyway.

Publication history aside, the poem is as lovely as any poem Poe wrote, and, like the best of his work, operates at the level of sound prior to the level of meaning. The double-rhymed, 4 syllable lines create a quick two-step that pauses, teeteringly, in each stanza, on the word “shadow” before stepping canteringly away on another two, quick-rhyming lines. The effect is that the music performs the ride-and-search, ride-and-search of the knight’s longing and futile quest. The repetition of the word shadow at the middle of each stanza not only enacts the temporary disappointment (a shadow is a false find) before the search is resumed but also shows the way the search changes in meaning as it progresses. The first shadow means a physical shadow; the second, emotional despair; the third, a ghost; and the fourth, the underworld. The gradual alteration in the meaning of the word is an expression of how the quest, though always meeting the same end, becomes more meaningful (from the physical to the transcendent) with each failure. Eldorado is a mirage, but the search for Eldorado is real and is a means of transformation. But this thematic meaning is ultimately secondary to the dreamy, trance-like, almost immediately internalized music of the piece, a music which, like “The Bells” and “The Raven” fixes itself almost immediately in the memory.

One Comment
  1. Very informative commentary. I’d like to hear the story of the doctor who couldn’t spell cat.

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