The King and the Beggar-maid

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"The King and the Beggar-maid" tells the story of King Cophetua and his love for the beggar Penelophon (or Zenelophon).[1]

The legend[edit]

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 are much loved by their people. Eventually they die and are buried in the same tomb.

In later art and literature[edit]

The legend is mentioned in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, and Henry IV. A ballad telling 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 Edmund Blair Leighton (The King and the Beggar-Maid) and Edward Burne-Jones (King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, 1884); and in photography by Julia Margaret Cameron and by Lewis Carroll (his most famous photograph; Alice as "Beggar-Maid", 1858).

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 long poem by Ezra Pound. The painting has a symbolic role in a short novel Le Roi Cophétua by the French writer Julien Gracq (1970). This in turn inspired the film Rendez-vous à Bray, directed by the Belgian cineaste 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."[2]

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

Hugh Macdiarmid wrote a brief two-verse poem Cophetua in Scots, which is a slightly parodic treatment of the story.[3]

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?

Passing references[edit]

In D.H. Lawrence's novel Sons and Lovers, Paul sees Miriam's well-worn clothes as "like the romantic rags of King Cophetua's beggar-maid."

P.G. Wodehouse, in the novel Laughing Gas, has the impoverished Ann Bannister initially reject a marriage proposal from the wealthy Reggie Havershot by alluding to this story and then saying "If I'd been there, I'd have said 'Oh yeah?' "

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.

In the novel Lonely Road, by Neville Shute, the dancer Mary (Mollie) Gordon rejects Commander Malcolm Stevenson's marriage proposal, citing "the things you hear about men being dragged down by marrying wrong"; Stevenson wonders absently "if King Cophetua had had this sort of thing, and if so, what he did about it."

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!"

In Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire novel Framley Parsonage (1861), 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.

In The American (1877) by Henry James, Valentin the Comte de Bellegarde, in describing his near-perfect aristocratic lineage to Newman states, "Horrible! One of us, in the middle ages, did better: he married, like King Cophetua. That was really better, it was like marrying a bird or a monkey, one didn't have to think about her family at all."

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..."

Georgette Heyer, in 1928's The Masqueraders, has Prudence tell her brother: "Lord, it’s a marvellous man! We become persons of consequence, and Tony’s denied his cherished role. He’d an ambition to play King Cophetua, Robin.’"

At the end of the 1947 film Black Narcissus the Young General makes a reference to "The prince and the beggar-maid", implying he has married the serving girl who was infatuated with him.

P.D. James, in her book Cover her Face (1962) has Eleanor Maxie say "These King Cophetua marriages seldom work out." in relation to the supposed engagement between her son and her maid. This was her first novel, and the first in the Adam Dalgliesh series.

In Robin McKinley's Beauty - A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast, she writes of Beauty's first entrance into the Beast's castle: "I wondered how King Cophetua's beggar-maid had felt when the palace gates had first opened for her."

In Shirley Hazzard's 1980 novel The Transit of Venus, the character Christian Thrale becomes infatuated with a young woman who he assumes is fairly poor, as his wife Grace had been when he met her. "He could not help associating his present impetuosity with his first encounter with Grace. Was there not, in fact, a recognized condition called the Cophetua Complex? Or had he made that up?"[4]

Florence King 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.

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