Edgar Allan Poe’s Eldorado By Lynn Schaffer Beaver
POE AND HIS WORKS
by Alfred Fredericks and Albert (?) Bobbett, 1875; wood engraving.
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!’
Eldorado - Edgar A. Poe, April 29, 1849
I discovered “Eldorado” by Edgar Allan Poe when I was twelve years old. I immediately fell in love with it and committed it to memory. The imagery of the bold knight sallying forth in search of a dream, only to be met with reality in the end, spoke to my adolescent soul. Over the years I even forgot that the poem was written by Poe, to me it didn’t matter, it was ‘my poem’. This is the way most of us have connected with a man considered to be the American literary giant. At some time in our youth, we encounter his ability to touch our hearts and minds and we keep coming back.
Published in The Flag of Our Union, a weekly story magazine, Poe’s short poem “Eldorado” uncannily parallels its author's life and his short future. He would publish only two more poems and two short stories before his death on October 7, 1849.
Looking at “Eldorado” from a slightly biographical angle, we can easily cast Poe in the role of the gallant knight, full of ambition, always searching, only briefly grasping what he longed for most in life: a home, a family, and financial security. Though the famously versatile writer rarely used himself as the narrator in his stories, this particular poem is hard to dismiss without a commentary on his once-promising, but ultimately tragic, short life.
Edgar Poe had barely begun his life before grief and personal loss became an overriding theme. He lost his mother Eliza when he was only three years old. His father had abandoned his family a year before, and while there are conflicting records, David Poe, Jr., died not long after his wife in 1811. The orphaned toddler was taken in by John and Francis Allen, an affluent couple, but he would never be adopted by them (which is why Poe only used their name as a middle name). It’s evident that, while the Allans took financial responsibility for the child, he was constantly reminded that he was not their son. Though he most certainly was led to believe he would continue to be treated as a child of wealthy parents, he and his foster father continued to clash and an irreparable rift between the two would affect every aspect of Edgar’s life.
Never really knowing a loving family, Poe would long for what many of us take for granted, that solid root in life that allows us to flourish as we mature. By the time Poe was court-martialed and dismissed from the United States Military Academy at West Point, he would be homeless, penniless, ill, and on the brink of starvation. While his foster father, a millionaire, could have easily helped him, he did not. It was then that William Henry Leonard Poe (known as Henry), the oldest of the Poe siblings, threw Edgar a lifeline in the form of a letter inviting him to live in Baltimore. A sailor and published poet, Henry had been sent to live with their paternal grandparents when the family was left without parents. Home from the sea, Henry was living with their grandmother, Elizabeth Cairns Poe (widow of David Poe, Sr., a Revolutionary War hero and friend of the Marquis de La Fayette) in Baltimore. Also in the home was Maria Poe Clemm, Edgar’s widowed aunt, and her young daughter Virginia, who would eventually become Poe’s wife.
For someone who had experienced very little normal family life, Poe seems to have truly enjoyed his time living with his elderly grandmother, aunt, young cousin, and older brother. Sadly, Henry would die within a year of his brother’s arrival, depriving Edgar of yet another familial link. His brother’s death seemed to make Poe even more desperate to hold close to those he loved. In 1835, his grandmother would pass on, and with her the only stable income in the household. Edgar and his cousin Virginia Clemm were married in 1836 and while the young writer truly began his literary career in Baltimore, the need to provide for his family would drive Poe to move to Philadelphia in 1838, leaving his aunt and Virginia while he relocated. Eventually, he would bring them both to live with him In Pennsylvania.
In Philadelphia, Thomas Willis White hired Poe as a staff writer and critic for the Southern Literary Messenger on the recommendation of novelist John Pendleton Kennedy, who would go on to serve in the US House of Representatives and as Secretary of the Navy during the Fillmore administration. While living and working in Philadelphia, Edgar was welcomed among literary circles, gaining friends and cultivated enemies alike. He was a rising literary star when he decided to move his little family to the publishing hub of New York City. His life would never be the same.
Arriving in the city in 1844, Poe was optimistic that his career would soar to new heights and that he would be granted access to the New York writing elite. He certainly made an initial splash among the insular community, but his critiques of lauded local luminaries landed badly and he was cut off from the very people who could help him most. A financial crisis that year would contribute heavily to Poe’s money woes. In 1845, Poe briefly glimpsed his full glory as a writer when “The Raven” was published. The only way to relay to a modern person the impact of this single poem is to use the word “viral.” “The Raven” was everywhere, published by nearly every major paper and magazine, while Poe earned only $9.00 for the original publication. The verse was on everyone’s lips, Poe was begged to recite it at every social gathering he attended, he would adjust the lighting to create an atmosphere of gloom and shadow. Children in the streets would throw pebbles at his heels until he would turn at just the right moment and pronounce, “Nevermore” to their squeals of delight. Even during this halcyon time, Poe’s real shadows were never far away.
Virginia’s ever-worsening health would decline until her death at age 24 in 1847. With his wife’s passing, Edgar’s life would spiral out of control in a near frenzy of grief, alcohol, and illness. While Poe would never achieve fortune and glory, he created a treasure for us to discover in his incredible literature: an “Eldorado” indeed.
By Lynn Schaffer Beaver
Next Up: Poe, The Imp of the Perverse