It's a tough call, but American author Edgar Allan Poe may be my favourite poet.
Swirling eddies of hope and despair underpin much of Poe's work, a testament to the man's seemingly tortured state of mind every time he put pen to paper. In 1809, during the final year of his life, Poe penned a masterpiece of optimism and despondency, Eldorado, a poem that consists of only four stanzas (1):
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!’
- Edgar Allan Poe
This poem may be interpreted several ways.
On a contextual level, Poe may have been referring to the search for material riches, as many people were during the California gold rush of the era, using the literary translation of the word "El Dorado" (which means "the golden one"), a term originally adopted by the Spanish Empire to refer to a mythical Colombian tribal chief who apparently covered himself in gold; as time went on, the term morphed to more specifically describe a mythical lost city of gold. The discovery of gold in California during Poe's day resulted in "gold fever," which Poe was clearly aware of (2):
"For there is no seducing me from the path. I shall be a litterateur, at least, all my life; nor would I abandon the hopes which still lead me on for all the gold in California. Talking of gold, and of the temptations at present held out to “poor-devil authors”, did it ever strike you that all which is really valuable to a man of letters - to a poet in especial - is absolutely unpurchaseable?"
In this interpretation, Poe is stating that Eldorado represents material riches, yet in reality this is an illusion, for the real riches in life are "unpurchaseable" - things like knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.
Alternatively, perhaps Poe was describing the search for happiness and success in life. In the first stanza, a young knight starts out fresh and full of hope that he will find success and happiness; the shadow simply complements the sunlight. The second stanza reveals that the knight is now old, and hope is nearly lost; the shadow represents the impending despair that accompanies the realization that success and happiness remain hidden. In the third stanza, death approaching, the knight listens to a pilgrim shadow; a pilgrim is a wanderer on a holy quest, seeking truth, so perhaps the pilgrim shadow represents another wayfarer from the past. In the final stanza, the pilgrim shadow tells the knight, via his legacy, that the search is futile; instead, it is best to ride boldly ride into the shadow of death. In this interpretation, Eldorado represents happiness and success, both of which prove to be illusory.
In search of Eldorado
A third, somewhat deeper interpretation is that Poe was attempting to convey the search for a meaningful existence. During youth, such a goal is somewhat naively conceived as something that is attainable, yet mid-way through the poem the knight has now become old; the discovery of the meaning of existence has eluded him all this time. The pilgrim shadow is the wisdom of experience, which finally allows the knight to realize that a meaningful existence is not found in the discovery of such a notion, but in the search for it. Thus, he should search "Over the Mountains Of the Moon" and "Down the Valley of the Shadow," seek meaning in places that are nebulous, intangible, even impossible to find, for Eldorado represents the quest itself, and how one is changed by it, not the elusive goal of the quest.
While I think all these interpretations hold merit, I also believe that Poe was trying to convey more with this poem.
In Search Of Eldorado...
In interpreting Eldorado, it is important to recall that it was written in Poe's final year of life, a year in which, at times, he often seemed to exist in a state of depression, writing to his friend Annie Richmond that his life seemed "wasted" (3):
"I cannot express to you how terribly I have been suffering from gloom...I am full of dark forebodings. Nothing cheers or comforts me. My life seems wasted - the future looks a dreary blank: but I will struggle on and hope against hope."
Thus, perhaps Poe wrote Eldorado as a mere reaction to his own depressed state, a kind of personal lamentation over a deep-seeded regret that he had been unable to find his own Eldorado - some additional, unrealized things he had wanted to achieve in his younger years - and yet, although I do not deny that Poe may have been prone to recurrent bouts of depression, and that Eldorado may have been written within the confines of that depression, I think there is still more to this poem.
Poe - a man of hope and despair.