by Edgar Allan Poe
In A Nutshell
There's gold in them thar hills! At least, there was gold in them thar hills. In January of 1848, gold was discovered near Coloma, California (about thirty miles northeast of present-day Sacramento). The discovery gave birth to the California Gold Rush, which attracted some 300,000 people to the state from all over the United States and elsewhere, looking to make their fortune. A whole lot of people came to the Golden State in 1849, so many in fact that they were called "Forty Niners." (All you football fans out there will recognize that nickname.)
The Rush itself lasted until about 1855, when most of the easily accessible gold had long since been gathered up and it became difficult for small-time miners to make a good living. Lots of things had changed by then, however. San Francisco, which before the Gold Rush had been a sleepy hamlet of only about 200 people, became a legit city, and California became a state (in 1850).
All this commotion did not escape the notice of one Edgar Allan Poe, who published "Eldorado" in a Boston newspaper in 1849, shortly before his death. Eldorado (sometimes spelled "El Dorado") is Spanish for "the gilded one" or "the golden one." (If you said "The Dorado," then give yourself half credit.) It was the name that the Spanish conquistadors of the 1500s gave to a legendary city of gold they believed was somewhere in South America. Many Spanish and other European explorers looked all over the continent, trying to locate this exotic city, but no soup for them. In fact, it's doubtful whether this place ever existed in the first place.
Still, lucky for us, this poem does exist! While Poe doesn't describe any actual details of the California Gold Rush, his work here can be read in part as a criticism of the whole craze for gold that gripped many people in the late 1840s. Let's face it: to respond to the Gold Rush by writing a poem about a fanciful knight searching for Eldorado implies some skepticism on Poe's part. It's almost like he was trying to say that the whole craze of making it rich was a bit unrealistic. Poe, obviously, didn't live to see the results of the whole Rush itself, but in the end he was kind of right. There was a lot of gold in California, but a whole lot of people up and left for California only to find little or none of it, going broke in the process. Their fate was much like the knight in the poem, who never ends up finding his Eldorado. Bummer.
The poem, however, isn't just a comment on a historical event, but also a more general reflection on life itself. Scholars have long obsessed over Poe's serious, life-long case of the Mondays (a real gloomy Gus, he was), and "Eldorado" is often read as Poe's comment on his own failures to find true happiness. This explains all the shadows and darkness in the poem, for they make us think of gloom and doom, like so much of Poe's work. To find this metaphorical Eldorado, then, would have brought poor Poe emotional riches beyond compare (as in, a super-big smiley face).
Why Should I Care?
Hop in the way-back machine, gang! The year is 1987. The jacket is Members Only. The band is U2. They scored their second consecutive Billboard Hot 100 hit with the song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." (You can check out the jam in our "Best of the Web" section.) The song's success can be explained in part because it speaks about something we all worry about: going through life feeling as though we've never really found or achieved what we've always wanted.
Now you don't have to be some 90-year-old guy on his deathbed who never went skydiving to know what we mean. You could be fifteen and upset that you didn't try out for football last year, or you could be thirty and worried that if you don't stop working so hard you'll never take that trip to Bermuda. The point is, nobody wants to reach the point where they're upset that they didn't do what they set out to achieve.
Can you relate? Of course you can! And that's pretty much "Eldorado" for you. The poem, by Edgar Allan Poe, is about a knight who appears to spend most of his life searching for Eldorado, the Lost City of Gold. He gets old, his strength starts to fail him, he meets a ghost (never a good sign), and is pretty much staring death in the face by the end of the poem. Yeah, it's not exactly a happy poem. In fact, it's really quite sad. Eldorado is the knight's goal, his dream, his destination, but he never even comes close to getting there.
Sound sad? Sure. But wait! There's one more little piece to the puzzle: Eldorado isn't real. It was a legendary city that nobody ever found—never ever! So while the knight's disappointment is very real, there's also a problem with his whole endeavor. He's so fixated on the unrealistic Eldorado that he spends his whole life trying to find it. Meanwhile, he misses all the sights along the way.
Life is a journey, not a destination—as that motivational poster hanging in your homeroom class says. While it is good to have goals, and to achieve those goals, it is also important to enjoy life as it is. If a goal becomes as ridiculous as Eldorado, we're in danger of missing out on a whole lot of what life has to offer. This poem will remind you not to devote all your energy to something that, frankly, might not be worth it. Instead, when walking through the jungle of life, it's important to take the time to stop and smell the flowers growing all around you, rather than hacking them aside in a deluded quest to find some hidden city that never existed to begin with. Good advice, Mr. Poe!