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Poems that Choose the Poet

One of the finest books I have read thus far in 2017 and perhaps for years is Richard Holmes third book in his trilogy THIS LONG PURSUIT. It is a masterful celebration of autobiography and his own writing. He is without a doubt one of the very finest biographers not only of recent times but perhaps in its long history.

Holmes admits to the reader that he knows now and understands perfectly that he does not choose his subjects. Rather they choose him. As a poet I know instinctively that is true for me as well, demanding my attention; my imaginative engagement and ultimately a poem.

‘Across three centuries, and much of Europe – “Holmes writes beautifully… A masterly performance by the greatest literary biographer of his generation' The Oldie ‘If our world is to be saved, we must understand it both scientifically and imaginatively'. So writes biographer Richard Holmes in This Long Pursuit, a kaleidoscope of stories and meditations in which he revisits two hundred working notebooks, and celebrates his beloved art of biography, calling it the vital ‘handshake across time, cultures, beliefs, disciplines and genders.

Ranging widely over art, science, and poetry, Holmes confesses to a lifetime's obsession with his Romantic subjects – a pursuit or pilgrimage of the heart that takes him across three centuries, through much of Europe and into the lively company of many earlier biographers.

Central to this quest is a powerful and tender evocation of the lives of women, both scientific and literary – some well-known and some almost lost: Margaret Cavendish, Mary Somerville, Germaine de Staël, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Dutch intellectual, Zèlide.

The book also reviews the controversial reputations of some favourite Romantic figures: the love-stunned Keats, the water-logged poet Shelley, the chocolate-box painter Thomas Lawrence, the opium-soaked genius Coleridge, and the mad-visionary bard, William Blake.

The diversity of Holmes's material is testimony to his empathy, his erudition and his enquiring spirit; and also sometimes to his mischief. He offers a unique insider's account of a biographer at work: travelling, teaching, researching, fantasizing, forgetting, and even ballooning. From this great chronicler of the Romantics now comes a chronicle of himself and his intellectual passions. This Long Pursuit contains his most personal and seductive writing.’Harper Collins

Anne Gilchrist (1828 – 29 November 1885), was an English writer, best known for her connection to the American poet Walt Whitman and collaborated with her husband on a life of William Blake). provides the volume’s closing words, in a celebration of her husband’s approach to the writing of lives. “He desired always to treat his subject exhaustively… to stand hand in hand with him, seeing the same horizon, listening, pondering, absorbing.” It is an approach that is for Holmes an article of faith, in which the biographer stands next to his subjects as critical supporter, gazing outwards from the windows at which they stood. Elsewhere in the volume, he describes biography as a “handshake” and “a simple act of complex friendship”.

‘A biography is like a handshake down the years that can become an arm-wrestle.’

Richard Holmes is the author of The Age of Wonder, which was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books and the National Books Critics Circle Award, and was one of The New York Times Book Review’s Best Books of the Year in 2009. Holmes’s other books include Footsteps, Sidetracks, Shelley: The Pursuit (winner of the Somerset Maugham Award) Coleridge: Early Visions (winner of the 1989 Whitbread Book of the Year Award) Coleridge: Darker Reflections (an NBCC finalist), and Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage (winner of the James Tait Black Prize). He was awarded the OBE in 1992. He lives in England and is married to the novelist Rose Tremain.

©Jeff Guess 2017

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