Heroic Isolation

Thomas Gray

All the lonely heroes
Where do they all come from? – With thanks to “Eleanor Rigby” and the Beatles

To some extent, lonely heroes “come from” a poem published in 1751 by English poet, classical scholar, and Cambridge professor Thomas Gray, who died on 30 July 1771: “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Consider the opening lines of what is still one of the most popular and frequently quoted poems in the English language:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

This self-conscious sense of melancholic isolation, which, as the poem progresses, will be complemented by stoic resignation, became almost the essence of the Romantic Hero, from Lord Byron’s Childe Harold, through Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, to Christian Bale’s Batman. What I mean is that Thomas Gray created a type of sensibility that has proven to be enduringly attractive, especially in the United States, where it has largely defined heroic character in both our literature and film.

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