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  • By David B. Gosselin

Beyond the Lines: Edgar Poe's "El Dorado"

Illustration by William Heath Robinson

"Just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colors, and odors, and sentiments, a duplicate source of delight. But this mere repetition is not poetry. He who shall simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of description, of the sights, and sounds, and odors, and colors, and sentiments, which greet him in common with all mankind — he, I say, has yet failed to prove his divine title. There is still a something in the distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us, but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone."

- Edgar Allan Poe, "The Poetic Principle"

In this installment of "Beyond the Lines," we take the example of one of Edgar Allan Poe’s short, but very dense poems, written near the end of his life. It is a perfect example of how a seemingly simple theme can be thoroughly developed using new rich metaphors which allow human beings to communicate what is otherwise not possible with merely literal forms of communication.

El Dorado

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!’

How is the meaning of this poem being communicated? Is it simply by rousing the senses with some peculiar word choice or imagery? Is the effect simply the result of a finely written set of lines, of rhyme, or meter? Wherein lays the poetry? Each element plays a part in carrying the idea forward, but only in so much as they lend themselves to the development of the poet’s idea. Look at how the words “shadow” and “Eldorado” are repeated? Are they simply being repeated, or is something happening between the lines? In a word: is the land of Eldorado, which the knight sings of the same as the Eldorado refered to by the shade?

By not addressing his subject directly, Poe communicates the meaning through a process of development: a tension is built up as the theme moves from stanza to stanza (from “room” to “room” in Italian). By not directly stating his idea, the meaning is developed in a way which is not arbitrary, which allows the reader to discover for themselves what is happening behind the lines, in the poet’s mind.

See what occurs when the poem is read again.

How does the nature of the word “shadow” change? At first it refers to a simple literal shadow, but then it takes on a qualitatively higher order of meaning with each successive stanza. And how does the seemingly literal idea of Eldorado become elevated, changed, such that it no longer has the simple literal meaning of some fabled land of riches and lost treasure, but takes on a metaphorical idea suggesting a completely different kind of world. The process of the development of the idea, becomes itself the self-conscious object of our attention, such that the meaning of the lines is not understood through the individual parts, but instead is seen from the standpoint of the process as a whole, of the poetic transformation. The process as a whole is what lawfully imbues the individual lines and images with their rightful meaning as opposed to a literal prose-like reading. While it is a simple piece, it allows us to see how a finely written poem can not only be unpacked, but also crafted.

Poe referred to the successful creation of such poetry as:

The struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness — this struggle, on the part of souls fittingly constituted — has given to the world all that which it (the world) has ever been enabled at once to understand and to feel as poetic.

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