Professor John Holmes BA, MA, DPhil

Photograph of Professor John Holmes

Department of English Literature
Professor of Victorian Literature and Culture

Contact details

University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

I joined the department in 2015 as Professor of Victorian Literature and Culture. My research focuses on the relationship between scientific ideas and cultural forms in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including poetry, architecture and the visual arts. More widely, I work on and teach a wide range of nineteenth-century literature, with interests in poetry and poetic form, especially the sonnet and the epic; religious belief and doubt; and the history of sexuality.


  • D.Phil. In English Literature, Oxford, 2001
  • M.A. in Renaissance Studies, Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, 1997
  • B.A. in English Language and Literature, Oxford, 1994


I was born and grew up in London, before moving to Oxford to do my undergraduate degree, back to London for my MA, and back to Oxford, where I completed a doctorate on ‘The Victorian Sonnet Sequence and the Crisis of Belief’ in 2001. After teaching briefly for the Open University, I got a job as lecturer in English literature at the University of Reading. I taught at Reading from 2001 to 2015 before joining Birmingham as Professor of Victorian Literature and Culture.


I teach nineteenth-century literature across the BA and MA degrees. I currently teach on second-year modules on Victorian and Decadent Literature; a third-year module on Literature in the Age of Evolution, running from the early 1800s to the present day; and the core nineteenth-century MA modules.

Postgraduate supervision

I have supervised a number of PhDs on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature, including recent and current projects on the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Constance Naden and Thomas Hardy, the fiction of Elizabeth Gaskell, the legacy of Pre-Raphaelite art and literature within modernism, and physics in modernist poetry. I would welcome applications for postgraduate projects on Victorian poetry; on literature and science from 1800 to the present day; on literature and the visual arts; and on poetic form, particularly the sonnet and the epic.

Find out more - our PhD English Literature  page has information about doctoral research at the University of Birmingham.


My research concentrates on the relationship between science, literature and the arts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It has two main strands. The first strand concerns the relationship between poetry and evolutionary theory. In Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution (2009) I examined how poetry can inform and shape our responses to and understanding of the Darwinian condition. Since then, I have edited a collection of essays on twentieth-century poetry and science and I co-edited The Routledge Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century British Literature and Science (2017) with Professor Sharon Ruston at Lancaster University. I am currently working on a new research project looking at how evolutionary theory and epic literature have drawn on one another over the last 200 years. The second major strand of my research on science and culture stems from an AHRC Science in Culture Fellowship on the Pre-Raphaelites and science (2012-13). For this project, I examined their paintings, sculpture and poetry in the light of their art criticism, which repeatedly invokes science as a model for the arts. I also researched the shaping influence of Pre-Raphaelitism on Victorian science itself, particularly through natural history museum architecture and periodical culture. My book The Pre-Raphaelites and Science has recently been published by Yale University Press. Since 2015, I have been working on a further project on natural history museum architecture specifically, in Britain, Europe and Canada, in collaboration with Professor Janine Rogers at Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick. Our project, Building the Book of Nature: The Poetics of the Natural History Museum, has been funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Both in my research on poetry and in my work on museums, I aim to engage scientists and those interested in science as well as literary scholars. I have worked closely with a number of leading scientific institutions over the course of my research, including the Royal Society, the Natural History Museum, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Royal Ontario Museum, and I am one of the co-authors of a report for the AHRC on the value of humanities research on biology to biologists. Through these cross-disciplinary collaborations, I have been aiming to build up a much richer understanding of the significance of scientific practices and discoveries, and a fuller sense of how the arts can engage constructively with science.

Other activities

I have been actively involved in the British Society for Literature and Science (BSLS) since its inaugural conference in 2006. I was Treasurer from 2006 to 2009, Book Reviews Editor from 2008 to 2012, and Chair from 2012 to 2015. While I was Chair I helped to establish links between the BSLS and other related academic societies, including the international Commission on Science and Literature (CoSciLit), the European branch of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts (SLSAeu) and the British Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE-UK). I am currently Secretary of CoSciLit and am a member of SLSAeu, SLSA, the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS) and the North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA).

I am on the editorial boards of the Journal of Literature and Science and Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, and am external examiner on King’s College London’s MSc in Medical Humanities. I am an honorary associate of the Oxford University Museum and was a co-curator of the Visions of Nature year at the museum in 2016. I have been invited to speak about literature and science at conferences and research seminars in a number of countries across continental Europe and North America, as well as the UK.



  • John Holmes, The Pre-Raphaelites and Science (New Haven and London: Yale University Press and the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art, 2018)
  • John Holmes and Sharon Ruston (eds), The Routledge Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century British Literature and Science (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017)
  • John Holmes (ed.), Guests of Time: Poetry from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (Scarborough: Valley Press, 2016)
  • John Holmes (ed.), Science in Modern Poetry: New Directions (Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2012)
  • John Holmes and Natasha Distiller (eds), Horae Amoris: The Collected Poems of Rosa Newmarch (High Wycombe: Rivendale Press, 2010)
  • John Holmes, Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2009; paperback 2013)
  • John Holmes, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Late Victorian Sonnet Sequence: Sexuality, Belief and the Self (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005)


  • Nick Battey, Rachel Crossland, John Holmes, Françoise Le Saux, Karín Lesnik-Oberstein and David Stack, The Value of the Literary and Historical Study of Biology to Biologists: A Scoping Study (Reading: University of Reading, 2012)

Journal articles

  • ‘Consilience Rebalanced: Edward O. Wilson on Science, the Humanities and the Meaning of Human Existence’, Journal of Literature and Science, 10.1 (2017), 5-10‘
  • ‘Algernon Swinburne, Anthropologist’, Journal of Literature and Science, 9.1 (2016), 16-39
  • ‘Pre-Raphaelitism, Science and the Arts in The Germ’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 43 (2015), 689-703
  • ‘Poetry on Pre-Raphaelite Principles: Science, Nature and Knowledge in William Michael Rossetti’s “Fancies at Leisure” and “Mrs. Holmes Grey”’, Victorian Poetry, 53.1 (2015), 15-39.
  • ‘Building a Vision of Nature: Owen, Waterhouse and the Design of the Museum’, Evolve, 17 (Autumn 2013), 36-41
  • ‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Science’, Review of the Pre-Raphaelite Society, 21.3 (2013), 54-64
  • ‘Ruskin’s Windows at the Oxford Museum’, Ruskin Review and Bulletin, 9.2 (2013), 23-32
  • ‘“The Poet of Science”: How Scientists Read Their Tennyson’, Victorian Studies, 54 (2012), 655-78
  • ‘Literature and Science vs History of Science’, Journal of Literature and Science, 5.2 (2012), 67-70
  • ‘Poetry and the Darwinian Condition’, The Systematist, 33 (2011), 3-8
  • ‘Darwinism, Feminism, and the Sonnet Sequence: Meredith’s Modern Love’, Victorian Poetry, 48 (2010), 523-38
  • ‘“The Ionian Father”: Tennyson and Homer’, Tennyson Research Bulletin, 9 (2010), 330-47
  • ‘“The Lay of the Trilobite”: Rereading May Kendall’, 19, 11 (2010): Science, Literature and the Darwin Legacy, 15 pp.
  • ‘Lucretius at the Fin de Siècle: Science, Religion and Poetry’, English Literature in Transition, 51 (2008), 266-80
  • ‘Thomas Lodge’s Amours: The Copy-Text for Imitations of Ronsard in Phillis’, Notes and Queries, 251 (2006), 55-57
  • ‘The Guiana Projects: Imperial and Colonial Ideology in Ralegh and Purchas’, Literature and History, 14/2 (2005), 1-13
  • ‘The New Day: Dr. Hake and the Poetry of Science’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 9 (2004), 68-89
  • ‘The Growth of The Growth of Love: Texts and Poems in Robert Bridges’s Sonnet-Sequence’, Review of English Studies, 55 (2004), 583-97
  • ‘The Victorian Genetics of Astrophel and Stella’, Sidney Journal, 17:2 (1999), 41-51

Book chapters

  • ‘Sustaining The Earthly Paradise’ in Victorian Sustainability in Literature and Culture, ed. by Wendy Parkins (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), 32-50
  • ‘From Eve to the Red Lady: John Barnie at the Oxford Museum’ in Wired to the Dynamo: Essays and Poems in Honour of John Barnie, ed. by Matthew Jarvis (Blaenau Ffestiniog: Cinnamon Press, 2018), 61-69
  • ‘Natural History, Evolution and Ecology: The Biological Sciences in Nineteenth-Century Literature’, in The Routledge Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century British Literature and Science, ed. by John Holmes and Sharon Ruston (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), 331-56
  • ‘The Challenge of Evolution in Victorian Poetry’ in Evolution and Victorian Culture, ed. by Bernard Lightman and Bennett Zon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 39-63
  • ‘Pagan Epic in Contemporary British Poetry: Hughes and Logue, Ovid and Homer’ in The Epic Expands: Rereading & Widening the Epic Corpus, ed. by Vincent Dussol (Brussels: P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2012), 343-58
  •  ‘From Bergson to Darwin: Evolutionary Biology in the Poetry of Judith Wright’ in Science and Modern Poetry: New Directions, ed. by John Holmes (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012), 194-209
  • ‘Victorian Evolutionary Criticism and the Pitfalls of Consilience’ in The Evolution of Literature: Legacies of Darwin in European Cultures, ed. by Nicholas Saul and Simon J. James (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011), 101-112
  • ‘Prometheus Rebound: The Romantic Titan in a Post-Romantic Age’ in Romantic Echoes in the Victorian Era, ed. by Andrew Radford and Mark Sandy (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 209-224
  • ‘The X Club: Romanticism and Victorian Science’ in (Re)creating Science in Nineteenth-Century Britain, ed. by Amanda Mordavsky Caleb (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), 12-31
  • ‘Pursuing the Well-Beloved: Thomas Hardy, Jocelyn Pearston and the School of Rossetti’ in The Rossettis: Cosmopolitans in Victorian London, ed. by David Clifford and Laurence Roussillon (London: Anthem, 2004), 237-51

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