Sunday December 03, 2017

Richard Holmes reflects on his life as a 'Romantic biographer'

Writer Richard Holmes turns to the Romantic poets for inspiration in This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer.

Writer Richard Holmes turns to the Romantic poets for inspiration in This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer. (HarperCollins)

Listen to Full Episode 52:01

Richard Holmes is one of Britain's most celebrated literary biographers. Focusing on the Romantic era, his deeply researched, passionately articulated work has won virtually every prize available to biographical writing. In his latest book, This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer, Holmes looks back on the subjects of his career, offers glimpses into his own life, and explores the relationship between writers and their biographers.  

Holmes's subjects have included Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Samuel Johnson, Mary Wollstonecraft, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Keats and William Blake. More than anything, Holmes is a storyteller — he sees biography as "a keyhole into another time," a way of perceiving the world from someone else's perspective. 

Richard Holmes spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from London. 

Lives burning bright

"Some of the lives of the romantic poets were like fireworks. They burned very intensely and very briefly and they'd light up the imaginative sky. Others, like Coleridge who lived into his sixties, offer a different kind of perspective. But it does interest me to see the older Romantic poets interpret and reinterpret their own youth. It is intriguing to see how the young man changes into the much older person; and then to see the older person looking back at his own childhood. There is layer upon layer of biographical images and time frames shifting in the process. Biography can describe that very well."   

Serving your subjects

"Biographers are waiters. They wait upon their subject, often over many years. They are in their service and pay close attention. It doesn't matter that your subject is dead. In fact, it helps in many ways. Moving into another historical period — another time, place and identity — is a great challenge. Everything from the clothes people wore to their world view, you are recreating a whole mental apparatus. Paying attention, not just going to the archives, but also visiting the actual, physical places where your subjects lived and wrote and dreamt — that is the task of the biographer. And unlike a novel, biographies are a cumulative process where one biographer hands off a subject to another — so the pursuit is never complete."

Being transported by biography

"By studying somebody else's life or writing about it, you step outside your own life and you come back to it refreshed. That's what you hope your biographies do for your reader. They take the reader into a completely different world, in my case to the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the great functions of biography is that it takes you away from the modern world, but it then gives you a point of perspective to come back to your own life and see it differently." 

Richard Holmes's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast program: Romance for Piano, Op. 24 No. 9 composed by Jean Sibelius, performed by Leif Ove Andsnes.