The King and the Beggar-maid  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

"The King and the Beggar-maid" is a Medieval romance which tells the legend of the prince Cophetua and his unorthodox love for the beggar Penelophon (or Zenelophon).

The legend

According to tradition, Cophetua was an African king known for his lack of any natural sexual attraction to women. One day while looking out a palace window he witnesses a young beggar (Penelophon) suffering for lack of clothes. Struck by love at first sight, Cophetua decides that he will either have the beggar as his wife or commit suicide.

Walking out into the street, he scatters coins for the beggars to gather and when Penelophon comes forward, he tells her that she is to be his wife. She agrees and becomes queen, and soon loses all trace of her former poverty and low class. The couple lives a "quiet life" but is much loved by their people. Eventually they die and are buried in the same tomb.

In literature

The legend is mentioned in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, and Henry IV. An ancient ballad of the tale is included in Richard Johnson's anthology Crown Garland of Goulden Roses (1612), and in Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), but the origin is otherwise obscure. The girl's name is variously given as Penelophon or Zenelophon.

The Cophetua story was famously and influentially treated in literature by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (The Beggar Maid, written 1833, published 1842); in oil painting by Edward Burne-Jones (King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, 1884); and in photography by Lewis Carroll (his most famous photograph; Alice as "Beggar-Maid", 1858), and by Julia Margaret Cameron.

The painting by Burne-Jones is referred to in the prose poem König Cophetua by the Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal and in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920), a poem by Ezra Pound. The painting has a symbolic role in the a short novel Le Roi Cophétua by the French writer Julien Gracq (1970) - which in turn inspired the film Rendez-vous à Bray, directed by the Belgian cineast André Delvaux.

The story was combined with and inflected the modern re-telling of the Pygmalion myth, especially in its treatment by George Bernard Shaw as the play Pygmalion.

It has also been used to name a sexual desire for lower-class women, apparently first by Graham Greene in his 1951 novel The End of the Affair: "I don't know whether psychologists have yet named the Cophetua complex, but I have always found it hard to feel sexual desire without some sense of superiority, mental or physical." (p. 23).

Agatha Christie uses the phrase "Cophetua syndrome" in her novel The Body in the Library, to refer to the case of an elderly upper-class Englishman who becomes infatuated with a working-class girl, albeit in a fatherly rather than sexual way. Christie also references Cophetua in her novel "Crooked House".

Dorothy Sayers, in "Strong Poison," depicts Lord Peter Wimsey saving Harriet Vane's life by his detective skills and immediately departing from court, whereupon one of Harriet's friends predicts that Peter will "come see her;" to which another friend declares "No, he's not going to do the King Cophetua stunt." This usage, unexplained, suggests that the Cophetua story was familiar to the reading public in early-20th-century England. She makes another reference in "Have his Carcase" where she has Harriet Vane telling Peter Wimsey: "You think you can sit up there all day, like King Cophetua being noble and generous and expecting people to be brought to your feet. Of course people will say, "look what he did for that woman - Isn't it marvellous of him !"

Florence King recently revived the term for her 15 July 2002 essay entitled "On Keeping a Journal," which appeared in "The Misanthrope's Corner" of the National Review magazine.

C. S. Lewis often used Cophetua and the beggar girl as an image of God's love for the unlovely. In The Problem of Pain, for instance, he writes, "We cannot even wish, in our better moments, that [God] could reconcile Himself to our present impurities - no more than the beggar maid could wish that King Cophetua should be content with her rags and dirt..."

Hugh Macdiarmid wrote a brief two-verse poem Cophetua in Scots, which is a slightly parodic treatment of the story.

P.D. James, in her book "Cover her Face" (1962) has a character saying "These King Cophetua marriages seldom work out." This was her first novel, and the first in the Adam Dalgleish series.

The English poet and critic James Reeves included his poem "Cophetua," inspired by the legend, in his book The Talking Skull (1958).

In Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire novel "Framley Parsonage", Lucy Robarts likens her relationship with Lord Lufton, who has proposed to her and whom she loves, to that of King Cophetua and the beggarmaid. It is clearly implied that such a relationship would have unfortunate consequences for them both.

Alice Munro titled one story in her 1980 collection, "The Beggar Maid". Before her marriage to Patrick, Rose is told by him: "You're like the Beggar Maid." "Who?" "King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. You know. The painting." The American edition of Munro's collection is also titled The Beggar Maid, a change from the Canadian title: Who Do You Think You Are?





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