The early version tells more of the story: King Cophetua is an African prince who disdains women. One day, however, looking out of his palace window he sees among the beggars at the gate a maid so beautiful that he is instantly struck with love and has her brought into the palace. Tennyson then takes up the tale:
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.'
Cophetua swears to make her his Queen and in spite of the horror of his courtiers at the idea of him marrying a commoner, he does so.
The picture was exhibited in London and Paris to great acclaim. Its success was partly due to it being seen as an illustration of the moral idea of the triumph of beauty and spiritual values, represented by the maid, over material wealth and power. In the painting King Cophetua is seated below the beggar maid and has removed his jewelled crown. The egalitarian idea of a king marrying a beggar has also been seen as connected with the socialism that Burne-Jones's close friend William Morris was espousing at this time.
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.87