Richard Holmes is the author of Shelley: The Pursuit (published by NYRB Classics), which won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1974; Coleridge: Early Visions, winner of the 1989 Whitbread Book of the Year award; Dr Johnson & Mr Savage, which won the 1993 James Tait Black Prize; and Coleridge: Darker Reflections, which won the 1990 Duff Cooper Prize and Heinemann Award. His new book, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, was published in October 2013. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1992. He is also a professor of biographical studies at the University of East Anglia. He lives in London and Norwich with the novelist Rose Tremain. The article in the December 18, 2014 issue draws on the seventh Leon Levy Biography Lecture, which he gave in 2014 on “The Two Sides of the Biographer’s Notebook.”

The Greatness of William Blake

‘Satan Watching the Caresses of Adam and Eve’; watercolor by William Blake for John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 1808
There are many William Blakes, but mine arrived with the tigers in the 1960s. The first line I ever read by Blake was not in a book, but laid out in thick white paint (or should I say illuminated) along a brick wall in Silver Street, Cambridge, England, in 1968. It was not poetry, but prose: “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” It sent a strange shiver down my spine, as it did for thousands of other university students in England and America that year.

A Quest for the Real Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge; portrait by James Northcote, 1804
By the time I had finished my eight-hundred-page biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1974, I was nearly thirty.1 I had traveled in France, Switzerland, and Italy in search of my fiery, footloose poet. I felt like a veteran after a long campaign in the field. I felt grizzled, …

John Keats Lives!

John Keats; portrait by Joseph Severn, 1821–1823
Forty years ago this autumn, I spent a week working at a small wooden table on a tiny ironwork balcony in Rome. The balcony was directly above the Spanish Steps. The apartment was on the second floor of 26 Piazza di Spagna. It was the apartment where John Keats died …

‘Genius…Infected by Romance’

Thomas Lawrence: The Red Boy (Charles William Lambton), 54 x 44 inches, 1825
Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) belongs to the genial “Golden Age” of British portrait painting—the age of Gainsborough, Northcote, Hoppner, Phillips, Beechey, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. But he also bears the intriguing distinction of having been accused of inventing the Chocolate Box School of Regency portraiture. His luscious treatment of edible …

The Great de Staël

Madame de Staël; portrait by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson
She was the only daughter of a Swiss banker, and one of the richest and cleverest young women of her generation in Europe. She wrote among much else one celebrated novel— Corinne, or Italy (1807)—which invented a new heroine for her times, outsold even the works of Walter Scott, and …

The Fantoms of Théophile Gautier

In 1857 Charles Baudelaire dedicated his collection of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal, to his “friend and master” Théophile Gautier. Following a trial for obscenity (guilty on six counts), The Flowers of Evil rightly became the most famous book of erotic poetry published in nineteenth-century France, and the wording of …

The Passionate Partnership

Coleridge once said that people should take time to lean on gates. There is a wooden gate above a field in Dorset which is well worth leaning on. It is a plain, five-bar farm gate, and in early summer is shrouded in hawthorn blossoms. It opens off a little lane, …

The Romantic Pugilist

Jem Belcher was one of the most elegant and widely admired bare-knuckle prizefighters of the early Regency. He was renowned for his handsome looks, his extraordinary pluck, his eccentric boxing style, and his unshakable good manners both inside and outside the ring. He was also famous for his unnerving habit …

Triumph of an Artist

If you walk eastward across London’s Covent Garden (carefully avoiding the fire-eaters, the street mimes, and other performance artists), you will come to a small, neat row of Georgian houses called Russell Street. About thirty yards along Russell Street on the right-hand side, above a modern Italian coffeehouse, you can …

Lost Tale of a Lost Child

In November 1997 the British biographer Claire Tomalin received a fax from a small Italian town in the Apennine hills above Pistoia. It announced that a neat, handbound manuscript of a long-lost story by Mary Shelley had been unearthed in a family trunk belonging to descendants of the Shelleys’ Tuscan …

Paradise in a Dream

The sensibility of early German Romanticism seems infinitely distant to us now. The very name Novalis, the pseudonym of the poet Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801), sounds like an astronomical explosion on the edge of some remote galaxy. The symbol of the Blue Flower, which he created in his unfinished novel …

The Romantic Circle

What is a Romantic poet supposed to look like? One answer is, simply, like Lord Byron: beautiful, brooding, and damned. Byron’s image—the dark, curly locks, the mocking aristocratic eyes, the voluptuous mouth, the chin with its famous dimple, and the implicit radiation of sexual danger—became famous throughout Britain after the …

Voltaire’s Grin

His enemies said he had the “most hideous” smile in Europe. It was a thin, skull-like smile that sneered at everything sacred: religion, love, patriotism, censorship, and the harmony of the spheres. It was a smile of mockery, cynicism, and lechery. It was the sort of smile, said Coleridge, that …

On the Enchanted Hill

I started out writing, some thirty years ago, largely because of Stevenson. He was the man who opened the magic door. His wit, his style, his courage, his wanderlust, all enchanted me; and they still do. He made England seem small, and the world look big. He made the dreams …

Lord of Unreason

The first graffiti I ever encountered was “Billie Blake Lives” sprayed on a large green rubbish bin outside “everweeping Paddington Station. That was thirty years ago now, and you do not see “Billie” so often in London; yet Blake’s peculiar living presence in the British counterculture remains assured. Anyone who …

‘He Doth Not Sleep’

The occasion of Shelley’s two hundredth birthday (August 4) reminds me of an open-air rock concert once given by the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park, London. Mick Jagger, wearing a white skirt, read out some “posy” for his drummer, Brian Jones, who had recently been drowned (not in the Gulf …

Closing the Goethe Gap

They tell an Irish joke in my part of North London which the Universal Sage might have liked. An English construction boss is interviewing a Dublin laborer for a building-site job. “But do you have the knowledge, my lad,” asks the Brit sententiously. “Can you tell the difference between a …

The Cabinet of Doctor Keats

One of the great intellectual attractions of Romanticism is that it arose in a period when science and art were still talking intelligently to each other. There was no social gap between the Two Cultures. The greatest British experimental chemist of the day, Sir Humphry Davy, published a collection of …