The Descent of Frea

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Norse Romanticism: Themes in British Literature 1760-1830, Edited By Robert W. Rix

Frank L. Sayers (1763–1817)

1.        Frank L. Sayers was a poet and scholar who settled in Norwich after a failed career in medicine. Here, he made a lifelong friend in the poet William Taylor (1765–1836). Sayers showed an early interest in radical politics. However, in later years, he made a shift to conservatism. This was paralled by a shift in religious opinion from atheism to a dogmatic Anglicanism.

2.        Upon settling in Norwich, Sayers published Dramatic Sketches of the Ancient Northern Mythology (1790). This collection, containing “Moina”, “Starno”, and “The Descent of Freya”, were published by Joseph Johnson, the radical bookseller. Dramatic Sketches drew attention both in England and in Germany, where the blank-verse poems were translated by Valerius Wilhelm Neubeck (1792–93). In 1792, a revised English second edition (incorporated in his collected Poems) was published with several additions (3rd ed. 1803, 4th ed. 1807). It now included two “monodramas”, a drama with only one speaker, which Sayers pioneered and which came to enjoy a vogue in the 1790s.

3.        Robert Southey befriended and greatly admired Sayers. In the preface to his epic fantasy Thalaba, Southey tells us that he was inspired to his experiment by Sayers’s use of unrhymed, irregular verse and mythological subject matter in his Dramatic Sketches. [1] 

4.        A slim volume of new poetry, Nugae poeticae, was revealed in 1803. Here, Sayers began flirting with humour and parody. A volume of essays, Miscellanies, Antiquarian and Historical (1805), shows that Sayers’s interest in antiquarian matters had extended to Anglo-Saxon literature, of which he included extracts in translation.

5.         The Descent of Frea deals with the death of the god Balder. In this way, it connects with Thomas Gray’s “The Descent of Odin”. Sayers praises Gray in his preface to Dramatic Sketches of the Ancient Northern Mythology for making use of “the splendid and sublime religion of our Northern ancestors” in his poetic composition. Northern religion was, after all, one of “the superstitions and mythologieswhich have contributed at different periods to decorate the poetry of England” (preface, iii). Among writers who took an interest in Norse mythologies as an inspiration, Balder’s death was a popular theme. In Denmark, Sayers’s drama had a precursor in Johannes Ewald’s drama Balders Død from 1773.  [2]  Sayers’s friend had brought home a German translation of this drama, which inspired the composition of “The Descent of Frea”. [3] 

6.        According to Norse myth, Balder had been dreaming about his own death. Therefore, Frigg, his mother, secured an oath from every creature and object in nature (snakes, metals, diseases, poisons, fire etc.) that they would not injure Balder. All agreed, except the mistletoe, which Frigg had thought too small to ask. The trickster Loki was jealous of Balder. Thus, Loki tricked Balder’s blind twin brother Hod into throwing a mistletoe dart at Balder, which pierced him through his heart, leaving the much-beloved god dead. Frigg sought for one brave enough to face Hel, the mistress of the underworld, and plead for Balder’s return to the living. The great hero Hermod was chosen. Hel agreed to release Balder on the condition that everything, dead or alive, should weep for Balder. But since Loki did not weep, Balder had to remain in Hel’s underworld until the end of the world.

7.        In describing the incident and the gods sending an emissary to Hel, Sayers takes several poetic liberties. In his version, it is not Heremod, who is sent to Hel, the goddess of death, to plead for Balder’s return, but Frea, the goddess of beauty.

8.        The poem contains a long passage on the Northern hell brimming with horror imagery. The Monthly Review thought this was so well executed that they provided their readers with a 75-lines citation of it. [4]  The well-respected Russian historian N.M. Karamzin writes in two reviews to the Moscow Journal of 1792 that Frank Sayers’s Scandinavian poems presented “a rich imagination [and] natural simplicity”, and that through Sayers (and the writer Thomas Holcroft): “English literature rises again”. [5]  Later, in a review of William Drummond’s poem Odin (1818), “The Descent of Frea” is referred to as “probably the most beautiful masque in our language”. [6] 

***

The Descent of Frea: A Masque in Two Acts (1790)

INTRODUCTION.

1.        The gods of the Northern nations were not, like those of the Greeks, imagined to be immortal; they were exempted neither from pain nor death, and even those who escaped these evils during a series of ages, were at length to be destroyed at the last day, or, as it is stiled in the Sagas, “the Twilight of the Gods:” till that time should arrive, they were supposed to dwell in Valhalla, and to enjoy in a supreme degree those luxuries and pleasures which the people who worshipped them considered as the most desirable.

2.        Balder, the son of Odin, was highly, celebrated among the gods for his exquisite beauty and consummate eloquence; his office as a deity was to guide the horse of day, called Skinfax, in his diurnal course, and he is therefore properly to be considered as the god of the sun. The death of Balder was effected by the artifices of Lok, the most malicious and baneful of the Gothic deities; Lok however dared not openly to destroy him with his own hand, but for this purpose he presented a spear of peculiar power to another of the sons of Odin, Hoder, who with this enchanted weapon unintentionally pierced his brother to the heart. After this misfortune, the soul of Balder, in conformity to the tenets of the Gothic religion, was supposed to descend to the dwelling of Hela, the goddess of the infernal realms. The grief in heaven on account of the death of Balder was extreme; Frea, the goddess of beauty, was peculiarly afflicted by the loss of her lover, and resolved to undertake a journey to the regions of death, in hopes of obtaining by her entreaties the release of Balder. This descent of Frea, and the success which attended it, are the subjects of the following Masque.

PERSONS OF THE MASQUE.

  • Odin , God of War, and King of the other Deities.
  • Thor , God of the Air.
  • Niord , God of the Sea.
  • Surtur , God of Fire.
  • Lok , God of the Infernal Regions.
  • Balder , God of the Sun.
  • Hertha , Goddess of Fertility, and wife of Odin.
  • Frea , Goddess of Beauty.
  • Hela , Goddess of Death.

THE DESCENT OF FREA.

ACT I.
SCENE. The Infernal Regions.
BALDER
THOU land of horror! where eternal Frost [7] 
Has built his icy throne, and dims the air
With ever-hissing fleet; where fallen Night
Has spread her dingy veil, and biting blasts
Sweep o’er the solid seas and chill my frame;
5
Must Balder ever pour the fruitless moan?
Must Balder’s sighs be mock’d by shivering ghosts,
Shrill-shrieking from their caves? Must Balder’s soul
For ever shudder at the death-owl’s song,
And shrink aghast from speckled snakes that rear
10
Their venom’d jaws, and horrid hiss around?
Bright scenes of bliss! farewell! — ye splendid domes,
For ever echoing with the joyful noise
Of revelry and song harmonious; happy feats
Of happy gods where from the gold tipt horn
15
They quaff the scented nectar of the bee,
With rapture list’ning to the thrilling strains
That rush on sounding wings from Braga’s harp.
No more hall Balder in your shining halls
Catch with transported soul the social joy,
20
And mix exulting with celestial bands.
No, Balder, no; amid the giant-brood
Amid the yelling ghosts of murderers
Thou dwell’st — no more the cheering light of heav’n
Shall meet these sorrowing eyes; for here no beam
25
O morning bursts with softest lustre round,
Nor here ambrosial eve with fragrant hand
Scatters her sweets; — no silver-sounding voice
Melodious warbles to my sorrowing soul —
The sooty raven fails around my head
30
And harshly chants her hoarsest descant here
Thou flaming steed of day! whose golden mane
Waves in the air, and pours a flood of light
Oft’ have I sprung upon thy shining back
To trace the radiant path, then mounted high
35
The blue expanse of heaven and girt with beams
Of dazzling glory wing d my course rejoicing
Alas! how chang’d! in midnight gloom enwrapt,
The lord of Splendor groans in Hela’s halls,
For ever banish’d from the realms of light —
40
Groves of Valhalla! From whose waving boughs
Sweet music, mix’d with Mimer’s soothing murmur, [8] 
For ever floated on the fragrant air;
Oft have I wander’d in thy flowery paths,
Holding celestial converse; oft I’ve fought
45
Thy stillest shades, and caught with eager ear
The melting strains that burst from Braga’s shell
Attun’d to love; and there the beauteous form
Of Frea blooming as the orient day
Would blushing meet her Balder’s steps retir’d,
50
Enamour’d gaze upon my godlike limbs,
And drink the honied accents of my lips;
Then from her beaming eyes the glance of love
Quick shot.—Dear scenes of fleeting joy, farewell!
What now avails the form that Frea lov’d?
55
What now avails the eloquence that charm’d
The listnening gods?—A brother’s bloody hand
Blasted my bliss, and dash’d me from the height
Of joy to misery!—Ye hated maids! [9] 
When first ye ’gan to weave the woof of fate,
60
Ye scatter’d wide around the flowers of spring;
At length the raven croak’d—with joy ye snatch’d
The cords of woe, and dipp’d the cursed web
Deep in the pitchy waters of despair.—
O thou! who fitt’st upon thy shining throne
65
Array’d in splendor! Odin, Odin! hear
The sorrows of a son, and turn thine eye,
Moist with paternal grief, from scenes of glory;
Pierce thro’ the thickest horrors which surround me,
Extend thy daring arm, and drag thy child
70
From caves of darkness to thy beamy hall.—
Father, I ask in vain—it is not thine
To break the firm decrees of Fate unchanging;
But Balder wretched Balder here must mourn
For endless years.—And thou, all-beauteous goddess,
75
Cast from thy aching heart all fond record
Of Balder’s love—What beam of living light
Shoots trembling round? What wafted perfume scents
The dusky air? Some pitying god descends
To visit these sad scenes.— ’Tis she! ’tis she!—
80

FREA.
(Entering.)
Where is the lovely god that Hoder tore
From Frea’s fond embrace?—Again I clasp him,
Again my tear-worn eyes behold my Balder,
Yes, son of Odin, from the starry realms
Of bliss I come to seek thy black abode;
85
Without thee heaven itself is misery,
And ail its boasted pleasures deadly woe.
On Odin’s winged steed [10]  I sped my course,
Nine days his rapid feet unceasing skimm’d
A measureless extent of vallies dark;
90
At length the foaming tide of Giall [11]  stopp’d him;
High o’er its waves a lofty bridge arose
On golden pedestals, a steel-clad warrior
For ever guards its entrance.—Who art thou,
He cried aloud, thus hastening to the halls
95
Of gloomy death? No livid paleness stains
The roses of thy cheeks, no deadly dimness
Damps the keen lustre of those eyes that beam
With living fire; thou art no child of Hela.—
Away, I answer’d, ’tis a goddess hastes
100
To Hela’s halls.—I lash’d my snorting steed—
He shook with thund’ring tread the rattling pile,
Nor stopp’d till Hela’s iron gates oppos’d
His winged steps ; then, like a flaming star,
He shot aloft in air and bore me swift
105
Above the towering walls.—I tremble still,
Tho’ Balder’s arms embrace me.—

BALDER.
Fear not, Frea.

FREA.
Alas! my Balder, had this arm the power
To force thee upward from the cave of death,
110
Then would eternal joy reward my toil.—
But Hela’s iron chains no hand can break
Against her pleasure; and her gloomy soul
Joys in the anguish of the tortur’d ghost.

BALDER.
And can that winning form intreat in vain?
115
Can Hela hear unmov’d thy suppliant voice?
No, Frea, no—upon thy rosy lips
Persuasion fits resistless, charming all
To kind compliance.—Haste, accost the goddess. —

FREA.
Come from thy murky cells,
120
Where midnight darkness dwells,
Thou dreadful maid;
Come from thy chilly halls.—
The weeping Frea calls,
And seeks thy saving aid.
125

HELA.
(From within.)
Hence, hence, away;
No soothing charms
From Hela’s arms
Shall snatch her prey.

FREA.
By Allfather’s sacred head, [12] 
130
Which bowing shakes the lofty sky,
And regions of the dead;
By the holy ash which rears
Its waving honors high;
I charge thee, awful pow’r,
135
To quit thy gloomy bow’r,
And yield to Frea’s tears.

HELA.
(Entering.)
I come with iron heart,
To hear the fruitless prayer;
Speak, and swift depart
140
To realms of brighter air.

FREA.
Deep in thy misty caves my Balder lies;
Alas! how wither’d by the touch of woe!
Dim is the lustre of his fading eyes,
And sullen sadness marks his manly brow.
145

Quick thro’ his frame divine chill langours shoot;
The boasted roses of his cheeks are pale;
The winning tongue of eloquence is mute,
And rending sighs his heaving breast assail.

Come gentle Pity clad in snowy vest
150
And speed thy hasty flight to Hela’s cave;
Then smiling hover o’er her melting breast,
And sweetly teach her yielding heart to save.

And can’st thou, Hela, cast a ruthless look
On this fad scene of desolated charms?—
155
Tear the black leaf from Fate’s eternal book,
And give the grief-worn Balder to my arms.

Together let us climb the burning arch, [13] 
Which darts its many-colour’d beams on high;
Together let us speed the rapid march,
160
And seek the radiant palace of the sky.

Yield, Hela, yield; Valhalla’s mournful towers
No longer echo with the jocund sound,
No longer gladness gilds the patting hours,
But pale-ey’d Sorrow casts her shadows round.
165

Since Balder sunk untimely to the tomb,
Dim are the lingering beams of rising day,
The pale moon shrouds her silver orb in gloom
And sickly nature doffs her bright array——

HELA.
Frea, no more,
170
When all the gods of nature lave
With briny tears thy Balder’s grave,
Then Balder I restore ;
Yes, by Allfather’s facred head,
When all the gods of nature lave
175
With briny tears thy Balder’s grave,
He quits the regions of the dead.
Hence, away.—

FREA.
Enough, enough, I mount with speed,
And lash my winged steed
180
To realms of day.

ACT II.
SCENE, Valhalla.

The Gods assembled in Odin’s Hall.

ODIN.
WELCOME, fair Queen of Love, to Odin’s hall.
Say, haft thou mov’d the stubborn soul of Hela,
By soft persuasion and resistless sighs,
To yield the much-lov’d Balder back to light?

FREA.
Great king of gods and men, the only boon
5
That Hela granted to my sorrowing foul
Was this; when all the gods of nature weep
The briny tear of grief on Balder’s grave,
Then from the horrid caves of night he comes
To grace Valhalla’s halls; but golden hope
10
Has not yet fled the woe-worn Frea’s bosom ;
Still may my soothing words entice the tear
From pitying gods, and match from Hela’s arms
Her splendid prey.—

(Continues addressing Odin.)
Lord of the hosts of war,
15
In beaming armour bright,
Thou driv’st the scythed car
Amid the fearful fight—
Lord of the starry sky,
In dreadful majesty,
20
Thou wield’st the golden spear,
And call’st with awful found,
Cælestials hear,
And throng around
Their warrior king.—
25
The pitchy raven floats
On glossy wing,
Then to Odin hastens nigh,
Checks the hoarseness of his notes,
And whispers founds of dread futurity;
30
He comes from Schulda’s [14]  black abodes
To seek thy piercing look—
And Odin reads to listening gods
The Fates’ immortal book.—
Say, shall no sorrowing parent’s tear
35
Bedew thy Balder’s sable bier ?
Wilt thou not weep thy child forlorn,
Thy blooming child by Hela torn
From halls of bliss
To caves of dark despair?
40
Yes, Odin, yes,
I mark the gushing drops which stain
A father’s cheek,
Those gushing drops thy anguish speak,
Balder shall live again
45
And cleave the realms of air.

ODIN.
Odin drops the tear,
And wets thy Balder’s bier.

FREA.
(Addressing Hertha.)
Queen of the fertile earth,
Whose all-creative hand
50
First gave the sons of man their birth;
Whose sweetly founding voice
With soft command,
First bade the desert land rejoice;
Bade her fruitful bosom pour
55
The shady tree, the painted flower;
Bade her people every plain,
And fill with life the teeming main ;
Whene’er thy stately form appears
On mortal more,
60
No war nor battle’s found
Is heard the world around;
No more the armed soldier rears
The tined lance,
And nature groans no more.—
65
Before thy silver car
The rosy pleasures dance,
Balmy perfume scents the air,
Nature smiles in rich array,
And double glory gilds the day.
70
Say, Hertha, wilt thou drop the tear
On youthful Balder’s sable bier?

HERTHA.
Hertha drops the tear,
And wets thy Balder’s bier.

FREA
(Addressing Thor.)
God of the floating air
75
Whose gleamy lightnings tear
The pine high waving on the lofty rock
Whose thunders shake with dreadful shock
The trembling rills
Whose sable storm clouds pour
80
The salutary shower
And swell the parched hills
God of the howling blast
Whose rushing tempests haste
With sullen roar
85
The forest bows its waving pride,
The ocean heaves its swelling tide
Loud dashing on the shore
God of the iron mace
Which tames the giant race
90
Say wilt thou drop the pitying tear
On youthful Balder’s fable bier

THOR.
Thor shall drop the pitying tear,
And wet thy Balder’s sable bier,

FREA.
(Addressing Niord.)
Lord of the boundless deep,
95
Whose glittering waters gently swell
And kiss the rocky steep;
When thunders howl around
And tempests yell,
Thy moving plain repeats the direful sound;
100
Thy foamy waves arise,
And lash the darken’d skies
In dread commotion;—
Then by the lightning’s livid glare
Thou stalk’st serene thro’ murky air
105
Which veils the raging ocean.—
But soon the winged tempests go,
Soon the rattling thunders cease,
Sun-beams gild the mountain-brow,
And Thor in zephyrs whispers peace;
110
Then thou bid’st the roaring main
Gently sink to rest again—
Smooth its peaceful bosom rose
In calm repose,
And stillness hover’d on the gales of spring,
115
When Braga touch’d the quivering string
On Niord’s shore;
On its glassy surface flood
The father of the flood,
He bade the bard cælestial pour
120
His softest notes—
The melting music floats
Upon the peaceful wave-
Come from thy dewy cave,
My father cries,
125
Arise, arise,
Let the azure waters late
Thy snowy limbs and golden hair;
Haste in dazzling beauty bright
To charm the tuneful Braga’s fight.—
130
He spake, and Frea rose to realms of air.—
Then Niord clasp’d me to his breast
And all the parent’s pride confest.
Now, will my father’s heart disdain
To ease his daughter’s piercing pain?
135
Or wilt thou drop the pitying tear,
On youthful Balder’s sable bier?

NIORD.
Niord drops the tear,
And wets thy Balder’s bier.

FREA,
(Addressing Surtur.)  [15] 
King of resistless fire,
140
Whose desolating flames
From Hecla’s cliffs aspire,
Whose scorching breath,
The torch of death,
The proudest hero tames;
145
Where’er thy furious course is sped
Nature bows her wither’d head—
Thy fatal car outstrips the wind,
Thy flaming coursers’ nostrils pour
The, wide consuming shower—
150
Destruction flies behind;
She rears her red right hand
And with her fiery besom sweeps the blasted land.
Say, Surtur, wilt thou drop the tear
On youthful Balder’s sable bier?
155

SURTUR.
Surtur drops the tear,
And wets thy Balder’s bier.

FREA.
(Addressing Lok.)
God of the nether world,
Whose deadly arrow hurl’d
The blooming Balder to the caves of night,
160
O, let not Schulda write
His everlasting doom;
O, let not Balder’s tomb
For ever stand,
But match with pitying hand
165
From Hela’s curs’d abode
The fallen god;
Revive, revive his wither’d charms,
And give him back to Frea’s arms.
Drop, O Lok, the pitying tear
170
On youthful Balder’s sable bier.

LOK.
Away, away,
Lok ne’er will weep—
Let Hela keep
Her splendid prey.
175

FREA.
By the ghosts’ eternal moan,
By the murderer’s dying groans
By the screech-owl’s song of death,
By the night-mare’s baneful breath,
By the famish’d eagle’s scream,
180
By the meteor’s awful gleam,
By the slaughter’d infant’s blood,
By the roar of Giall’s flood,
By the mandrake’s fatal yell, [16] 
By all the horrors of thy hell,
185
I charge thee weep the briny tear
On youthful Balder’s sable bier.

LOK.
No—tho’ Valhalla’s towering wall
Around these sinewy limbs mould fall,
Tho’ Skinfax plunge his flaming head
190
Amid the caverns of the dead,
Tho’ Surtur aim his fiery dart
And heap his flames around my heart,
Tho’ Niord’s foaming main should roar,
And dash me lifeless on the shore ;
195
Tho’ Thor should hurl his iron mace
And stain with gore this hated face ;
Tho’ Odin’s self in wrath should rear
His golden spear
And shining shield,
200
This stubborn heart shall never yield—
Hela shall hold her splendid prey
While countless ages roll away.

The End

Source: Frank Sayers, Dramatic Sketches of the Ancient Northern Mythology(London: J. Johnson, 1790), 1–25.

Notes

[1] Robert Southey, Thalaba, the Destroyer (London: Longman et al., 1814), viii–ix. BACK

[2] This was translated as The Death of Balder by George Borrows in 1889. BACK

[3] William Taylor, Some Biographical Particulars, in Poetical Works (London: W. Simpkin and R. Marshall, 1830), xl. BACK

[4] Monthly Review (September 1790): 142–3. BACK

[5] Quoted in A. G. Cross, N. M. Karamazin, A Study of His Literary Career, 1783–1803 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971), 47. BACK

[6] Monthly Review (January 1819): 44. BACK

[7] Sayers note: “The kingdom of Hela, or Death, is described as being in a state of continual darkness, and oppressed with a severe and perpetual winter. Noxious animals inhabited it, together with the ghosts of perjurers, assassins, and adulterers, and of all those who died not in battle, or of a violent death”. BACK

[8] Mimer was a Giant, who guarded the Well of Wisdom. BACK

[9] The three Norns, the deciders of destiny. BACK

[10] The name of Odin’s horse was Sleipner, which was eight-footed. BACK

[11] The infernal river separating earth and the underworld. BACK

[12] Sayers’s note: “The Goths acknowledged a Supreme Being, whom they called Allfader, or Father of all. They did not suppose him to dwell with the rest of the gods in Valhalla, but believed him to be a deity of a superior nature, and of an eternal existence”. BACK

[13] Sayers’s note: “The Rainbow; called by the Goths Bifrost, and supposed to burn. It was accounted the bridge from earth to heaven”. BACK

[14] Skuld, one of the three Norns. She controls the future destiny of Gods and men. BACK

[15] Sutr was a Giant. In the poem Völuspá of the Poetic Edda, it is said that, at Ragnarök, Surtr will come from the south with flames, carrying a bright sword. BACK

[16] Sayer’s note: “It was formerly believed that in plucking up the mandrake a scream issued from the ground which proved immediately fatal to those who heard it”. BACK

Published @ RC

March 2012

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