• Jessie Wolf

‘The Eve of St. Agnes’: Unconscious people don’t want tea.

Porphyro is hailed as a true Romantic hero, however Keats’ poem brings into question some of the ideas about consent that are still relevant today.

Porphyro is so in love with Madeline that he will do anything to spend time with her, to see her, and to confess his undying affection for her. How this works out, however, is Porphyro sneaking into her chambers, hiding in a closet and watching, unbeknownst to her, as “her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees” (230). By the modern definition of the word, her dress is not the only thing that’s creeping in this scenario. Once Madeline falls asleep, Porphyro goes into the room.

Having “stol’n to this paradise” (244), Porphyro piles up gifts for her, giving the suggestion that he has, in some way, paid for his time with her – a common misconception with the accepting of a drink in today’s society. He does attempt to wake her at this point; when she doesn’t respond, he climbs onto the bed anyway and “his warm, unnerved arm sank in her pillow” (280-281). Whilst nothing is explicitly stated (it is the Romantics, after all), the sexual imagery used strongly suggests what Porphyro has in mind for Madeline. The trepidation he holds for it also suggests he feels some guilt about it. This is because he does not have consent.

Researchers, and some legal definitions, state that “nonconsent should be assumed until someone actively consents” (Hickman and Muehlenhard, 259). The Thames Valley Police 2015 YouTube video exchanging sexual consent for a cup of tea puts it more succinctly: “Unconscious people don’t want tea, and they can’t answer the question ‘Do you want tea?’”. In the poem, Madeline and Porphyro do later run away together suggesting she would have given consent, but in this first instance consent is not freely given. So how exactly is Porphyro a Romantic hero when unconscious people don’t want tea?

Keats, J. ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’. University of Toronto Press, 1997.
Hickman, S., and Muehlenhard, C. “‘By the Semi-Mystical Appearance of a Condom’: How Young Women and Men Communicate Sexual Consent in Heterosexual Situations.” The Journal of Sex Research, vol. 36, 1999, pp. 258–272.
May, E. “Tea and Consent”. YouTube, uploaded by Thames Valley Police, 16th Nov 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZwvrxVavnQ.
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