Gaily Bedight

When I think of the poem El Dorado, I always get a mental picture of Edgar Allan Poe saying “what rhymes with knight?” and then he finds the word “bedight” and hollers “Eureka.” Then he says, hey, that’s a good title and saves up “Eureka” for later use.

Maybe he thought it was weird that the Spanish explorers were always “dressed to the nines” while conducting their explorations. Don’t think he didn’t know that expression since it appears in one of Robert Burns’ works – The Poem on Pastoral Poetry:

“Thou paints auld Nature to the nines,
In thy sweet Caledonian lines; …”

Our gallant knight isn’t just “gaily bedight” when he sets out. He is gaily bedight “in sunshine and in shadow.” I have always pictured him alone, though most of the searches for the fabled South American City of Gold were actually expeditions.

The legend of El Dorado actually grew from several stories. One involves “el indio dorado,” (the Golden Indian). This is a tale about Diego de Ordaz’s lieutenant Martinez, who was rescued from a shipwreck, and taken from town to town. Supposedly, he was entertained by a Golden Indian. However, Prussian naturalist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt notes in his book, Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, that he believes this fable was based loosely upon the adventures of Juan Martin de Albujar, who “fell into the hands of the Caribs of the Lower Orinoco. This Albujar married an Indian woman and became a savage himself.”

Conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada (it is believed that Miguel de Cervantes modeled Don Quixotes after him) searched for El Dorado, but instead found the Muisca, one of the most advanced pre-Colombian civilizations. The invading Spaniards took gold and emeralds galore and stole the golden ornaments from the temple at Sogamoso. Then they burned down the temple. On August 6, 1538, the Muisca village of Bacatá was renamed Santa Fé de Bogotá.

Later in 1541, Gonzalo Pizarro who was the governor of Quito, as well as half brother of Francisco Pizarro, teamed up with Francisco de Orellana to set out in search of El Dorado. Pizarro quit the disastrous expedition. Orellana ended up being the first to travel and explore the entire length of the Amazon River.

Sir Walter Raleigh (who was pretty gaily bedight himself) resumed the search in 1595 and upon his return to England, published a book describing El Dorado as a city on Lake Parima far up the Orinoco in Guiana (modern-day Venezuela). This city was marked on English and other maps until its existence was disproved by Alexander von Humboldt.

Perhaps Poe was reading von Humboldt when he conceived the idea for El Dorado. Perhaps Poe even met von Humboldt during the period of time that he stayed with French author Alexandre Dumas in Paris, although that Poe ever even stayed in Paris is disputed. What can’t be disputed is that Poe dedicated his last great work, Eureka: A Prose Poem, to Alexander von Humboldt.

More resources:
Edgar Allan Poe Audio readings
The Purloined Life of Edgar Allan Poe