Colombe’s Birthday
Category: Verse
Level 8.21 1:47 h
Colombe is the Duchess of Juliers and Cleves until Prince Berthold arrives. Will Berthold succeed in taking the throne from Colombe? Combe must choose between love and the throne as Berthold offers marriage as her only option for staying in power. Read this play about the Duchess in Colombe's Birthday written by Robert Browning in 1844.

Colombe’s Birthday

A Play

Robert Browning

Colombe’s Birthday

“Ivy and violet, what do ye here
With blossom and shoot in the warm spring-weather,
Hiding the arms of Monchenci and Vere?”


Browning was stimulated by the enthusiastic reception of A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon to write another play for the stage, but for some reason it was not performed for ten years or so. It was printed in 1844 as No. VI. of Bells and Pomegranates. Mr. Gosse in his Personalia says: —

“I have before me at the present moment a copy of the first edition, marked for acting by the author, who has written: ‘I made the alterations in this copy to suit some — I forget what — projected stage representation; not that of Miss Faucit, which was carried into effect long afterward.’ The stage directions are numerous and minute, showing the science which the dramatist had gained since he first essayed to put his creations on the boards.

“Some of the suggestions are characteristic enough. For instance: ‘Unless a very good Valence is found, this extremely fine speech, [in Act IV. where Valence describes Berthold to Colombe], perhaps the jewel of the play, is to be left out.’ In the present editions the verses run otherwise.”

The play has recently [1895] been rearranged in three acts and brought again on the stage.


Colombe of Ravestein, Duchess of Juliers and Cleves.
Sabyne, Adolf, her Attendants.
Guibert, Gaucelme, Maufroy, Clugnet, Courtiers.
Valence, Advocate of Cleves.
Prince Berthold, Claimant of the Duchy.
Melchior, his Confidant.

Place, The Palace at Juliers.

Time, 16 — .

Act I

Morning. Scene. A corridor leading to the Audience-chamber.

Gaucelme, Clugnet, Maufroy and other Courtiers, round Guibert who is silently reading a paper: as he drops it at the end —

Guibert. That this should be her birthday; and the day
We all invested her, twelve months ago,
As the late Duke’s true heiress and our liege;
And that this also must become the day ...
Oh, miserable lady!

1st Courtier. Ay, indeed?

2nd Court. Well, Guibert?

3rd Court. But your news, my friend, your news!
The sooner, friend, one learns Prince Berthold’s pleasure,
The better for us all: how writes the Prince?
Give me! I’ll read it for the common good.

Gui. In time, sir, — but till time comes, pardon me!
Our old Duke just disclosed his child’s retreat,
Declared her true succession to his rule,
And died: this birthday was the day, last year,
We convoyed her from Castle Ravestein —
That sleeps out trustfully its extreme age
On the Meuse’ quiet bank, where she lived queen
Over the water-buds, — to Juliers’ court
With joy and bustle. Here again we stand;
Sir Gaucelme’s buckle’s constant to his cap:
To-day’s much such another sunny day!

Gaucelme. Come, Guibert, this outgrows a jest, I think!
You’re hardly such a novice as to need
The lesson, you pretend.

Gui. What lesson, sir?
That everybody, if he’d thrive at court,
Should, first and last of all, look to himself?
Why, no: and therefore with your good example,
( — Ho, Master Adolf!) — to myself I’ll look.

(Enter Adolf.)

Gui. The Prince’s letter; why, of all men else,
Comes it to me?

Adolf. By virtue of your place,
Sir Guibert! ‘Twas the Prince’s express charge,
His envoy told us, that the missive there
Should only reach our lady by the hand
Of whosoever held your place.

Gui. Enough!
[Adolf retires.
Then, gentles, who’ll accept a certain poor
Indifferently honorable place,
My friends, I make no doubt, have gnashed their teeth
At leisure minutes these half-dozen years,
To find me never in the mood to quit?
Who asks may have it, with my blessing, and —
This to present our lady. Who’ll accept?
You, — you, — you? There it lies, and may, for me!

Maufroy. [A youth, picking up the paper, reads aloud.]
“Prince Berthold, proved by titles following
Undoubted Lord of Juliers, comes this day
To claim his own, with license from the Pope,
The Emperor, the Kings of Spain and France” ...

Gau. Sufficient “titles following,” I judge!
Don’t read another! Well, — “to claim his own?”

Mau. “ — And take possession of the Duchy held
Since twelve months, to the true heir’s prejudice,
By” … Colombe, Juliers’ mistress, so she thinks,
And Ravestein’s mere lady, as we find!
Who wants the place and paper? Guibert’s right.
I hope to climb a little in the world,—
I’d push my fortunes, — but, no more than he,
Could tell her on this happy day of days,
That, save the nosegay in her hand, perhaps,
There’s nothing left to call her own. Sir Clugnet,
You famish for promotion; what say you?

Clugnet. [An old man.] To give this letter were a sort, I take it,
Of service: services ask recompense:
What kind of corner may be Ravestein?

Gui. The castle? Oh, you’d share her fortunes? Good!
Three walls stand upright, full as good as four,
With no such bad remainder of a roof.

Clug. Oh, — but the town?

Gui. Five houses, fifteen huts;
A church whereto was once a spire, ‘t is judged;
And half a dyke, except in time of thaw.

Clug. Still there’s some revenue?

Gui. Else Heaven forfend!
You hang a beacon out, should fogs increase;
So, when the Autumn floats of pine-wood steer
Safe ‘mid the white confusion, thanks to you,
Their grateful raftsman flings a guilder in;
— That’s if he mean to pass your way next time.

Clug. If not?

Gui. Hang guilders, then! he blesses you.

Clug. What man do you suppose me? Keep your paper!
And, let me say, it shows no handsome spirit
To dally with misfortune: keep your place!

Gau. Some one must tell her.

Gui. Some one may: you may!

Gau. Sir Guibert, ‘t is no trifle turns me sick
Of court-hypocrisy at years like mine,
But this goes near it. Where’s there news at all?
Who’ll have the face, for instance, to affirm
He never heard, e’en while we crowned the girl,
That Juliers’ tenure was by Salic law;
That one, confessed her father’s cousin’s child,
And, she away, indisputable heir,
Against our choice protesting and the Duke’s,
Claimed Juliers? — nor, as he preferred his claim,
That first this, then another potentate,
Inclined to its allowance? — I or you,
Or any one except the lady’s self?
Oh, it had been the direst cruelty
To break the business to her! Things might change:
At all events, we’d see next masque at end,
Next mummery over first: and so the edge
Was taken off sharp tidings as they came,
Till here’s the Prince upon us, and there’s she
— Wreathing her hair, a song between her lips,
With just the faintest notion possible
That some such claimant earns a livelihood
About the world, by feigning grievances —
Few pay the story of, but grudge its price,
And fewer listen to, a second time.
Your method proves a failure; now try mine!
And, since this must be carried ...

Gui. [Snatching the paper from him.] By your leave!
Your zeal transports you! ‘T will not serve the Prince
So much as you expect, this course you’d take.
If she leaves quietly her palace, — well;
But if she died upon its threshold, — no:
He’d have the trouble of removing her.
Come, gentles, we’re all — what the devil knows!
You, Gaucelme, won’t lose character, beside —
You broke your father’s heart superiorly
To gather his succession — never blush!
You’re from my province, and, be comforted,
They tell of it with wonder to this day.
You can afford to let your talent sleep.
We’ll take the very worst supposed, as true:
There, the old Duke knew, when he hid his child
Among the river-flowers at Ravestein,
With whom the right lay! Call the Prince our Duke!
There, she’s no Duchess, she’s no anything
More than a young maid with the bluest eyes:
And now, sirs, we’ll not break this young maid’s heart
Coolly as Gaucelme could and would! No haste!
His talent’s full-blown, ours but in the bud:
We’ll not advance to his perfection yet —
Will we, Sir Maufroy? See, I’ve ruined Maufroy
Forever as a courtier!

Gau. Here’s a coil!
And, count us, will you? Count its residue,
This boasted convoy, this day last year’s crowd!
A birthday, too, a gratulation day!
I’m dumb: bid that keep silence!

Mau. and others. Eh, Sir Guibert?
He’s right: that does say something: that’s bare truth.
Ten — twelve, I make: a perilous dropping off!

Gui. Pooh — is it audience hour? The vestibule
Swarms too, I wager, with the common sort
That want our privilege of entry here.

Gau. Adolf! [Re-enter Adolf.] Who’s outside?

Gui. Oh, your looks suffice!
Nobody waiting?

Mau. [Looking through the door-folds.] Scarce our number!

Gui. ‘Sdeath!
Nothing to beg for, to complain about?
It can’t be! Ill news spreads, but not so fast
As thus to frighten all the world!

Gau. The world
Lives out of doors, sir — not with you and me
By presence-chamber porches, state-room stairs,
Wherever warmth’s perpetual: outside’s free
To every wind from every compass-point
And who may get nipped needs be weatherwise.
The Prince comes and the lady’s People go;
The snow-goose settles down, the swallows flee —
Why should they wait for winter-time? ‘T is instinct:
Don’t you feel somewhat chilly?

Gui. That’s their craft?
And last year’s crowders-round and criers-forth
That strewed the garlands, overarched the roads,
Lighted the bonfires, sang the loyal songs!
Well ‘t is my comfort, you could never call me
The People’s Friend! The People keep their word —
I keep my place: don’t doubt I’ll entertain
The People when the Prince comes, and the People
Are talked of! Then, their speeches — no one tongue
Found respite, not a pen had holiday
— For they wrote, too, as well as spoke, these knaves!
Now see: we tax and tithe them, pill and poll,
They wince and fret enough, but pay they must
— We manage that, — so, pay with a good grace
They might as well, it costs so little more.
But when we’ve done with taxes, meet folk next
Outside the toll-booth and the rating-place,
In public — there they have us if they will,
We’re at their mercy after that, you see!
For one tax not ten devils could extort —
Over and above necessity, a grace;
This prompt disbosoming of love, to wit —
Their vine-leaf wrappage of our tribute penny,
And crowning attestation, all works well.
Yet this precisely do they thrust on us!
These cappings quick, these crook-and-cringings low,
Hand to the heart, and forehead to the knee,
With grin that shuts the eyes and opes the mouth —
So tender they their love; and, tender made,
Go home to curse us, the first doit we ask.
As if their souls were any longer theirs!
As if they had not given ample warrant
To who should clap a collar on their neck,
Rings in their nose, a goad to either flank,
And take them for the brute they boast themselves!
Stay — there’s a bustle at the outer door —
And somebody entreating ... that’s my name!
Adolf, — I heard my name!

Adolf. ‘T was probably
The suitor.

Gui. Oh, there is one?

Adolf. With a suit
He’d fain enforce in person.

Gui. The good heart
— And the great fool! Just ope the mid-door’s fold!
Is that a lappet of his cloak, I see?

WholeReader. Empty coverWholeReader. Book is closedWholeReader. FilterWholeReader. Compilation cover