For sheer application and scholarship, Richard Holmes's 'Shelley - The Pursuit' (Harper Perennial, 2005) certainly merits its accolades and acclaim (it was awarded the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1974 when originally published).
Holmes does what every good biographer should do. He has not only read impressively widely on his subject but has also gone back to, at least some, original sources. It always worries me when writers of this genre limit their source-material solely to previous biographies. Inevitably, the arguments presented within wear all the hues of the author's own particular prejudices, perceptions and experiences, themselves limited by the author's own development. Researching original sources in addition to the established canon is much more arduous, but there can be no alternative if one wishes to write confidently from one's own understanding, especially if one is aiming at such a thorough investigation as Holmes delivers here.
Holmes has dived deep, and the details of Shelley's life and work are subjected to a close, considered and original examination and evaluation. The sheer size of the book alone is indicative of the, often minute, attention Holmes gives to aspects of the poet's life which are often too swiftly passed over or omitted altogether. I usually think that the place for extensive criticism of a poet's work is in a book devoted exclusively to it and not in a biography (which, to me, is setting out to do something quite different) and that, therefore, comments on the poetry should be limited exclusively to those which cast light on developments in the poet's life. However, the extended criticism of the poetry which Holmes interleaves with the story is not only extremely useful (and likely to be so to any student of the poems) but also, in places, quite brilliant.
I have only one important criticism. Although Holmes's Introduction redeems him somewhat (despite warning us that his book is not for `Shelley-lovers'), one increasingly gets the impression, as one journeys through this epic, that Holmes is passionately devoting his energies to writing about a poet he does not like. Even Shelley's poetry receives little admiration. Throughout the book, Holmes writes with an intellectual detachment which may be the preferred style for some - but the Shelleys' lives (and it is impossible to write the individual story of either Shelley, Mary or Claire without extensively bringing in the other two) were filled with such sadness and tragedy that, to probe them so closely with so little emotional response seems almost pathologically restrained, and the reason given (that there is enough sentiment elsewhere), unjustified. The untimely deaths of the two young suicides, Fanny and Harriet, for example, seem to me to deserve at least some passing compassion - not to mention the tragic death of Shelley himself, the extraordinary weeks leading up to it, and the devastating effect upon Mary and Claire. These are all delivered too sparsely for me. Holmes does remind us in his second edition that he himself was only 29 when he wrote the book, and therefore the same age as Shelley when he died - indeed, another reason for commendation to Holmes. However, as such (and unlike Holmes), Shelley was denied the chance for further reflection and mature development. What is more, throughout his short life, he was burdened with the heaviness of his spiritual mission (Holmes, and others, call it `political'; I would argue that it was something much deeper).
As stated at the beginning of this review, however, for the sheer scale of its undertaking (and despite focusing on a darkness which may turn out to be mostly shadows cast from the mind of the young author), Holmes's book certainly deserves both recognition and its established place as a classic text in the canon of Shelleyan biography and criticism.