According to Martin Harrison and Bill Waters, this "painting became synonymous with the artist, and was reproduced time and time again. It represents a king who, after searching far and wide, found his ideal, a beautiful soulful maiden who hovers between life and the spirit world. . . . Cophetua appreciates this and sits, gently absorbed by her presence; it is a moment of magic when time is stopped and the world is transmuted into an eternal stillness" (141). King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, in other words, provides a painterly version of the Rossettian perfect moment of frozen time captured in "Silent Noon," "The Woodspurge," and other poems. Burne-Jones, we may say, began his career as an apprentice to Rossetti, creating early works that looked like copies of his master's medieval subjects. Late in his career, when he has achieved a painterly style completely different from Rossetti, he yet uses it to depict a Rossettian theme.
Lionel Lambourne points out that the subject "derives from a poem in Percy's Reliques, which is printed form Johnson's Crown Garland of Golden Roses in 1612 and entitled Song of a Beggar and King. It concerns a king of Africa, whose aversion to women was overcome by a beautiful beggar girl" (108), but, oddly enough, he does not mention, as do Harrison and Waters, that Burne-Jones
had treated the subject earlier in a panel designed for the front of a cabinet which, like Holman Hunt's illustration in the [Moxon] Tennyson of 1857, keeps close to Tennyson's version of the story. . . . and like Holman Hunt's, Burne-Jones's early version has the king descending from his throne to the maid which has the quality of his bestowing a favour on her, totally unlike the more famous version in which the king has become as nothing before beauty and sits at her feet — a reversal of their roles. This theme, renunciation of material wealth for an ideal of beauty, had great significance for artists of the period, who, apprehensive of the erosion of spiritual values by worldly considerations, saw the danger to society and the individual which lay in the total pursuit of wealth. [143-44]
Lambourne's tracing this paintings subject to a poem about a king's "aversion to women" suggests that King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid has a lot in common with the painter's Pygmalion series. — George P. Landow
Harrison, Martin, and Bill Waters. Burne-Jones. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1973.
Lambourne, Lionel. The Aesthetic Movement. London: Phaidon, 1996.
Last modified 12 June 2020