Author Maeve Haran has set herself a challenge and a half. Not only does her latest novel, The Lady and the Poet (Pan), centre on the kind of high-stakes passion that courts ignominy and ostracism, but its principal player is none other than John Donne, one of the most erotically charged love poets to have tussled with the English language.
Haran, no stranger to steamy on-the-page clinches, entertainingly describes the challenges of bedding Donne in an article in this morning’s Telegraph. Awed by the task, she leafed back through legendary literary sex scenes – Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Fanny Hill, even Birdsong – in search of inspiration. She remained unmoved. ‘The awkward truth is that real sex is often anything but erotic,’ she concludes. ‘It is awkward, kinky, funny, tender and messy.’
Well, sure, but must its funny-tender-messy truth preclude eroticism? It would have been news to Donne. Then again, for him, really good sex wasn’t defined by a lover’s gymnastic prowess; it had to do with the act’s spiritual, transcendental content. Today, many of the words and images that he used to describe it are more commonly associated with the abstinence movement – with not having sex.