Burne-Jones' King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid depicts the story of a king who chooses to marry a poor, yet beautiful young woman. The maid wears thin, simple clothes which show the impression of her navel and leave her shoulders and feet bare. While she looks directly out of the painting, King Cophetua sits on the steps below her, his head at the level of her waist, looking up at her. He is wearing ornate armor and a flowing, dark blue cape, and holds his crown and sword. Two youths lean against a railing behind the maid, reading what appears to be a musical score.
Tennyson's "The Beggar Maid" depicts the maid coming before the king and his court, all of whom admire her physical beauty through conventional praises. although the poem involves the motion of the King and the maid, the focus of the poem is static and contemplative; it is a poem of description rather than of action, leading up to the sudden resolution of the last two lines.
Her arms across her breast she laid;
She was more fair than words can say:
Bare-footed came the beggar maid
Before the king Cophetua.
In robe and crown the king stept down,
To meet and greet her on her way;
'It is no wonder,' said the lords,
'She is more beautiful than day.'
As shines the moon in clouded skies,
She in her poor attire was seen:
One praised her ancles, one her eyes,
One her dark hair and lovesome mien.
So sweet a face, such angel grace,
In all that land had never been:
Cophetua sware a royal oath:
'This beggar maid shall be my queen!'
1. In Tennyson's poem, the maid is entirely an object of admiration, rather than a subject. How is she portrayed in Burne-Jones' painting? How does vision function in these two works?
2. What is the significance of the two youths in the painting? Why do they not seem interested in the King or the maid?
3. Why might Burne-Jones have chosen to depict the poor maid in such a luxurious setting? Is there any political relevance to his depiction of poverty?
4. What is the effect of the vertical alignment of the painting? Is the additional depth created by the open window necessary to the painting's composition?
How does the depiction of the maid compare to depictions of women by Burne-Jones' tutor, Dante Gabriel Rossetti?
Last modified 29 October 2006