El Dorado, a ballad poem written by Edgar Allan Poe, is notably one of his most prolific, and prominent works. It depicts the journey of a knight searching for the “land of El Dorado”, while enduring a loss of strength, and affliction of old age. The term “El Dorado” is frequently used metaphorically to describe a utopia, true love, success, or sincere happiness. There are various interpretations of what Poe was referring to in his mentioning of El Dorado.
However, it is highly probable that due to the text, and the context surrounding the poem; that El Dorado is synonymous with a wanted lover, or an ideal woman suitable for the knight. Throughout the poem, Poe refers to a “shadow” which symbolizes the knight being without a partner, and the depressing, gloomy feeling he gets from being alone. In the first stanza, Poe writes “A gallant knight / In sunshine and in shadow / Had journeyed long / Singing a song / In search of El Dorado” (2-6).
In these lines the shadow is used to compare the joyous, jubilant life of being in love, represented by sunshine; with an empty feeling, and deep desire for companionship. Furthermore, he stresses that the knight has experienced both the feelings of love, and loneliness; but strives to continue his endeavor of finding the love of his life. As the story progresses, the burden of searching vigorously for an acquaintance becomes increasingly evident where Poe writes “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 El Dorado” (7-12).
At this point in his life, the knight has grown old, and begins to lose hope of ever finding the perfect woman. Towards the end of the poem, the meaning of the shadow shifts from being the deep desire the knight has to find a partner, to a ghost-like illusion that he encounters which presumably serves to guide him to El Dorado. “And as his strength / Failed him at length, / He met a pilgrim shadow / “Shadow”, said he, / “Where can it be / This land of El Dorado? ” (12-18).
After years of searching for the ideal woman, the knight reaches his breaking point and is consulting the shadow for the pathway to his lover. The shadow instructs the knight to continue searching for El Dorado through the “Valley of the Shadow”. When looked at in context, this valley serves as a symbolic representation of the future sadness, and disappointment that awaits the knight if he wishes to continue his search for a lover. One of the most beneficial ways to understand the meaning of this poem is to analyze the context.
It is imperative to have an understanding of the larger picture. When taken into consideration the time, and place in which this poem was written; it is by no means farfetched to believe that the term “El Dorado” is being used in a romantic sense, to represent true love. The poem was published in 1849, which was one of the defining years of the Romantic Movement. During this time, many authors were attempting to relinquish the conservative social norms brought about during the Age of Enlightenment.
They aspired to promote the freedom to openly express love towards an individual. I believe that the life of Edgar Allan Poe had a crucial impact on the writing of this poem. Poe’s life dealt heavily with romance, and the desire to be loved. In 1935, he married his 13 year old cousin who died 12 years later. While attending the University of Virginia, Edgar Allan Poe was heartbroken when he discovered that his sweetheart, to whom he had been engaged, eventually married another man.
Overall, Poe spent his life pursuing happiness, while encountering much sickness, financial instability, and death; all of which played huge roles in the writing of El Dorado. The poem expresses a man who spent his life searching for a sense of satisfaction; and Poe’s life, ironically enough, is a direct reflection of the character he writes about. Scott Peeples, a Poe scholar, notes that El Dorado is “a fitting close to a discussion of Poe’s career”. This statement was made partly due to the fact that the poem was published 4 months before Poe’s death.
The metaphors of shadows, mountains, and the land of El Dorado itself, serve as evidence that Edgar Allan Poe attempts to portray a man desperate to find his true love. When viewed from the perspective of Poe, it is apparent that he would want to express his own life’s journey of searching for happiness, while often finding only anguish, and despair. The knight growing old, losing his strength, and becoming depressed, is an analogous storyline, fitting Poe’s life.