Conventions of the Epic in Poe's Eldorado
A Gallant Knight
In Sunshine and In Shadow
Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Eldorado,” is a literary masterpiece because of its epic style, its effective symbolism, and its carefully crafted structure. Poe uses the vocabulary of epic poetry to construct a small but intensely metaphorical and evocative poem, of short length but surprising depth. The sadness of the poem and it’s questing knight (no doubt inspired by the Poe’s own quest for happiness) blends romantic, epic, religious, and mysterious elements to create a remarkably short but incredibly complex and moving poem. Of Poe’s skill in crafting short stories, Zachary Bennett says: “Poe is the literary Houdini; he shows off his skills best in a confined space” (Bennett 43). The same might well be argued of Poe’s poetry. In this “confined” poem, Poe displays his skill in investing deep meaning in few words, saying much with little.
Although it is a 19th Century Poem, “Eldorado” draws heavily on romantic, religious, and epic traditions, molding each one to its purpose. Poe’s “gallant knight,” as the hero of the poem, hearkens back to the Romantic ideal of the questing knight (Poe 2). The questing knight was a staple of the Medieval and Renaissance Romantic tradition.
The identity of the “Shadow” and the advice it gives the knight are perfect examples of Poe’s use of epic and religious concepts. The “Shadow” is described as both a “pilgrim” and a “shade” (Poe 15, 23). While calling the shadow a pilgrim evokes religious (and Christian) ideas of penance or piety, calling it a shade creates a more epic mood. The word “shade,” used to describe the “Shadow,” is both a play on the word “shadow” and another name for a ghost, specifically an inhabitant of Hades (“Shade”). Therefore, the “Shadow” is presented in both Christian and Classical terminology. The use of the term “shade” in particular is evocative of the epic since Hades figured prominently in the classical epics of Homer, Ovid, and Virgil while the “pilgrim” reference, is a reminder of spiritual concerns.
The juxtaposition of Christian and Classical, the Epic and the religious, is repeated in the poem when the “Shadow” advises the knight to journey “Over the Mountains / Of the Moon” and “Down the Valley of the Shadow” (Poe 19-21). The “Valley of the Shadow” alludes to the 23rd Psalm’s “Valley of the Shadow of Death” suggesting Judeo-Christian values (NIV Study Bible, 810; Psalm 23.4). On the other hand, the “Mountains / Of the Moon” suggest classical ideals by referencing the legendary mountain range (Fisher, Notes 37). Poe follows both the romantic tradition and the epic tradition of literature in his thematic concerns.
The romantic, religious, and epic are all present in the poem “Eldorado” and contribute to the power of the poem by their interlocking concerns. The romantic idea of the questing knight is comparable to the religious ideal of the pilgrim. Both knight and pilgrim are traveling to reach a goal. The epic idea of the “shade” is important to religious concepts since it reminds us of the afterlife. The questing knight and the “shade” are also in harmony since epic heroes in Classical literature like Odysseus or Orpheus made journeys to Hades. Thus, the romantic, the epic, and the religious all are bound up in “This Knight so bold” and his quest (Poe 8). The locations mentioned in the “Shadow’s” advice also interlock with these ideas because locations suggest the idea of a quest, which is at once romantic, epic and religious. Poe uses the conventions of these genres to establish the mythic tone of his poem.
The theme of the poem is, primarily an epic one, since the romantic genre generally depends upon the hero’s ultimate success and the religious upon the conveyance of some spiritual insight of a morally edifying nature. The poem provides neither. Epics, however, are not so rigid. While many epic heroes like Odysseus triumph in their quests, others like Orpheus fail. The focus of the epic is on the struggle not the end. This is significant since “Eldorado” has no end. We do not know whether the knight triumphs or not. We only know that if he is to reach his goal he must continue his quest.
All of the themes of the poem do not really tell us the true meaning, however. They merely provide us with the lens through which Poe wants the reader to view it. The reader is to see the knight as an epic hero whose quest is romantically inspired and has religious significance. However, the object of the knight’s quest, the “land of Eldorado” is central to the meaning of the poem itself.
The myth of Eldorado is one that captivated generations of Europeans. During the 1500-1600s, many Europeans believed Eldorado was a land of great riches that existed in an undetermined location and “wasted countless lives” trying to find it (Drye). The legend even captivated the English “knight,” Sir Walter Raleigh, who mounted a failed expedition for the fabled city in 1617 that ultimately caused the death of his son in battle with the Spanish and was a contributing factor in Raleigh’s execution by King James I (Drye). This land of Eldorado is symbolic of not just wealth but also of perfection or happiness. This was the tradition which Poe evoked, one of fruitless struggle for the ideal place that was always out of reach.
Like so many real-life explorers, Poe’s knight has spent his life in vain pursuit of this ideal. Poe tells us that “his strength / failed him at length” and that “o’er his heart a shadow / fell” (Poe 13-14, 9-10). This suggests the knight’s quest has led to both his physical and moral deterioration. He is growing old and he is growing dismal. This description is even more significant when we consider that the knight began his quest “gaily bedight” and “Singing a song” (Poe 1, 5). By describing his knight as “bedight” (adorned) and singing, Poe presents a “happy warrior” who is ultimately brought low by his quest for Eldorado but still persists. This is where the heroism of the poem lies (“Bedight”). The futility of the struggle is emphasized by the “Shadow’s” directions to the knight. By telling the knight that Eldorado lies “Over the Mountains / Of the Moon,” it suggests “distances unattainable by humans” (Fisher, Notes 37). The epic nature of this tale and the word choices Poe makes encourage the reader to admire the knight’s courage in persisting with this seeming hopeless quest. These ideas are not just conveyed in the symbols used in the poem but in the poems very structure.
The structure of “Eldorado” lends itself to Poe’s message by communicating the brevity of man’s existence. The poem is made up of 4 stanzas of 6 lines each (24 lines total), with each line being written in iambic dimeter except for the third and sixth lines of every stanza which are written with 2 iambs and a dactyl. This structure makes not only the poem, but the individual lines short, forcing the reader to consider the brief time in which the knight goes from the festive opening to the disheartening conclusion. Only one stanza passes before the reader is informed that “he grew old- / This knight so bold-” (Poe 7-8). This brevity of life demonstrates the obstacles facing the knight who must search vast distances in a very brief time.
The rhyme scheme of the poem demonstrates the futility of the knight’s quest as well by suggesting that perfection is impossible to attain. The poem is written in the rhyme scheme aabccb except in the last stanza where it is abcddc. The final stanza does not fit because the first two lines end with words that do not rhyme (“Mountains” and “Moon”). This seeming flaw in Poe’s carefully structured poem is actually the greatest demonstration of his literary genius in the work. The lines “Over the Mountains / Of the Moon,” not only frustrate the knight in his quest for perfection (since they tell him that Eldorado is beyond his reach) but also the reader’s desire for perfection in the poem (because they break up the otherwise “perfect” rhyme scheme). Thus, the reader and the knight receive a shock at the same moment. Poe has delivered perfection in his imperfection.
Epic in theme, powerful in symbols, brief in length, and clever in rhyme, Edgar Allan Poe’s “Eldorado” is a literary masterpiece. With his careful choices, Poe crafted this small but powerful poem, leaving an undying testament to man’s heroic but futile quest for the ideal.
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