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The beggar maid

March 4, 2001
By Selwyn R. Cudjoe

NO one below the age of 50 should read this article. In fact, no one below 50 should trespass upon our memories for fear they sully them with irreverence. They can have no appreciation for the rote nature of a colonial education and the irreducible traces it left in our memories. With rulers to our knuckles and belts on our backs we imbibed those ideological impositions whether we liked them or not.

For all eternity, images of kings and princes, admirals and sea dogs, frosty evenings and snow-filled days were instilled in our minds. Our colonial masters, it seems, were intent to make us conscientious servants of empire. Only Afro- and Indo-Saxons, touched by magic of the West Indian Readers, can appreciate my recent shock of recognition.

It was one of those rare sunny days in London. I had finished my writing, gone to church later (Westminster Abbey, if you please) and then decided to check out the Tate Gallery Britain, a place that liberated Creoles—those below the age of 50—would never venture. Their liberation from Anglo-Saxonism prevents them from exploring the cultural productions of our colonial masters. As I viewed the exhibits I understood how tied we are to our early education. Four thousand miles away from home, my primary school education still reverberated in my consciousness.

The object of my discontent (or was it enlightenment?) was not even among the main objects of viewing. After all, Tate Britain is famous for the landscape paintings of John Turner, John Constable, Thomas Gainsborough and the portrait paintings of Joshua Reynolds. My discontent/enlightenment occurred in a side gallery given over to the theme, "Literature and Image". The curator wanted to demonstrate how English painters illustrated famous moments of canonical literature (in the works of Shakespeare, Milton, the Bible, Homer and Ovid) and the connection between the writerly and the painterly enterprises. Because 18th-century academic theory insisted that history painting was "the highest form of art," artists chose historical subjects that related to national interest.

In that room I came across Edward Burne-Jones's painting, "King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid," an illustration of Tennyson's "The Beggar Maid". I cannot remember if the latter poem, as it appeared in our readers, was accompanied by this painting. Yet, I was carried 50 years into the past to a time when we learned these poems by heart.

It was one of those poems that ministered to our moral as well as our secular education. It possessed a similar impact as the Shakespearian selection: "Good name in man and woman, is the immediate jewel of his soul./Who steals my purse steals trash." Even late bloomers (we called them duncy then) had to memorise these poems.

But the image of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid was a treasure. I do not know if it had anything to do with youthful, romantic musings or my budding democratic sensibility. Yet, somewhere in my memory, this poetic jewel remained entrapped only to enrapture me anew.

I never knew who King Cophetua was nor from whence he came. I only knew that he fell in love with this beautiful, barefooted maid who came from afar and of whom the legend says: "She was more fair that words can say."

Imagine my wonderment when, on a 293.4 by 135.9 cm canvas, I saw this African king sitting in his chambers, at the feet of a glowing, ethereal maid, as two young children, perched higher still, observed the dumb-struck awe of a man as he beholds incomparable beauty.

The story of King Cophetua is simple. He was an African king who disdained women and love and promised, cross his heart, never to fall in love. Then one day, as he stood at a window in his castle, he glimpsed a beggar woman at his gates, fell in love at first sight and vowed, forthwith, that he would make this barefooted beauty his queen. In his painting, Burne-Jones places King Cophetua at the feet of the maid. He captures him at a moment when spirituality conquers wealth and love transcends the boundaries of class and reason, vindicating the truism that love has a reason all of its own.

The painting, with its elaborate architectural setting and sumptuous decorative details, has its own history. Exhibited in London in 1884, it was received enthusiastically at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1889.

In recognition of its visual impact and its important social statement, the French Government awarded Burne-Jones the Cross of the Legion of Honour. One critic notes: "The theme of inferiority of riches and power of love, and the rejection of the material for the spiritual held particular relevance for the French." "King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid" suited their fancy.

Although we may not have appreciated it then, this painting and presumably the poem were influenced by the theme of social equality. William Morris's embrace of socialism shaped Burne-Jones' outstanding work.

For those under 50 who persisted in reading this article, a part of the poem goes like this: "Her arms across her breast she laid;/ She was more fair than words can say:/ Barefooted came the beggar maid/ Before the king Cophetua. / In robe and crown the king stepped down, / To meet and greet her on the way:/'It is no wonder,' said the lords, /'She is more beautiful than day.' In the end, Cophetua swore a royal oath: "This beggar maid shall be my queen!"

I cannot tell whether the belts on our backs or the youthful idealisation of love froze these verses in our minds. I only know the past claims us with an iron grip. For a brief moment, the work of a generation was re-ignited with fervor and intensity making that king and that barefooted woman living presences in my mind. For better or for worse, the Saxony of our experience lives on in complex, unfathomable ways. May it not be true that the child is always father of the man?

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