Frank L. Sayers, The Descent of Frea: A Masque in Two Acts (1790)
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. 
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.  Sayers’s friend had brought home a German translation of this drama, which inspired the composition of “The Descent of Frea”. 
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.  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”.  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”. 
The Descent of Frea: A Masque in Two Acts (1790)
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.
THE DESCENT OF FREA.
SCENE. The Infernal Regions.
THOU land of horror! where eternal Frost Has built his icy throne, and dims the airWith ever-hissing fleet; where fallen NightHas spread her dingy veil, and biting blastsSweep o’er the solid seas and chill my frame;
5Must Balder ever pour the fruitless moan?Must Balder’s sighs be mock’d by shivering ghosts,Shrill-shrieking from their caves? Must Balder’s soulFor ever shudder at the death-owl’s song,And shrink aghast from speckled snakes that rear 10Their venom’d jaws, and horrid hiss around?Bright scenes of bliss! farewell! — ye splendid domes,For ever echoing with the joyful noiseOf revelry and song harmonious; happy featsOf happy gods where from the gold tipt horn 15They quaff the scented nectar of the bee,With rapture list’ning to the thrilling strainsThat rush on sounding wings from Braga’s harp.No more hall Balder in your shining hallsCatch with transported soul the social joy, 20And mix exulting with celestial bands.No, Balder, no; amid the giant-broodAmid the yelling ghosts of murderersThou dwell’st — no more the cheering light of heav’nShall meet these sorrowing eyes; for here no beam 25O morning bursts with softest lustre round,Nor here ambrosial eve with fragrant handScatters her sweets; — no silver-sounding voiceMelodious warbles to my sorrowing soul —The sooty raven fails around my head 30And harshly chants her hoarsest descant hereThou flaming steed of day! whose golden maneWaves in the air, and pours a flood of lightOft’ have I sprung upon thy shining backTo trace the radiant path, then mounted high 35The blue expanse of heaven and girt with beamsOf dazzling glory wing d my course rejoicingAlas! 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 — 40Groves of Valhalla! From whose waving boughsSweet music, mix’d with Mimer’s soothing murmur, For ever floated on the fragrant air;Oft have I wander’d in thy flowery paths,Holding celestial converse; oft I’ve fought 45Thy stillest shades, and caught with eager earThe melting strains that burst from Braga’s shellAttun’d to love; and there the beauteous formOf Frea blooming as the orient dayWould blushing meet her Balder’s steps retir’d, 50Enamour’d gaze upon my godlike limbs,And drink the honied accents of my lips;Then from her beaming eyes the glance of loveQuick shot.—Dear scenes of fleeting joy, farewell!What now avails the form that Frea lov’d? 55What now avails the eloquence that charm’dThe listnening gods?—A brother’s bloody handBlasted my bliss, and dash’d me from the heightOf joy to misery!—Ye hated maids! When first ye ’gan to weave the woof of fate, 60Ye scatter’d wide around the flowers of spring;At length the raven croak’d—with joy ye snatch’dThe cords of woe, and dipp’d the cursed webDeep in the pitchy waters of despair.—O thou! who fitt’st upon thy shining throne 65Array’d in splendor! Odin, Odin! hearThe 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 70From caves of darkness to thy beamy hall.—Father, I ask in vain—it is not thineTo break the firm decrees of Fate unchanging;But Balder wretched Balder here must mournFor endless years.—And thou, all-beauteous goddess, 75Cast from thy aching heart all fond recordOf Balder’s love—What beam of living lightShoots trembling round? What wafted perfume scentsThe dusky air? Some pitying god descendsTo visit these sad scenes.— ’Tis she! ’tis she!— 80
Where is the lovely god that Hoder toreFrom Frea’s fond embrace?—Again I clasp him,Again my tear-worn eyes behold my Balder,Yes, son of Odin, from the starry realmsOf bliss I come to seek thy black abode;
85Without thee heaven itself is misery,And ail its boasted pleasures deadly woe.On Odin’s winged steed  I sped my course,Nine days his rapid feet unceasing skimm’dA measureless extent of vallies dark; 90At length the foaming tide of Giall  stopp’d him;High o’er its waves a lofty bridge aroseOn golden pedestals, a steel-clad warriorFor ever guards its entrance.—Who art thou,He cried aloud, thus hastening to the halls 95Of gloomy death? No livid paleness stainsThe roses of thy cheeks, no deadly dimnessDamps the keen lustre of those eyes that beamWith living fire; thou art no child of Hela.—Away, I answer’d, ’tis a goddess hastes 100To 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’dHis winged steps ; then, like a flaming star,He shot aloft in air and bore me swift 105Above the towering walls.—I tremble still,Tho’ Balder’s arms embrace me.—
Fear not, Frea.
Alas! my Balder, had this arm the powerTo force thee upward from the cave of death,
110Then would eternal joy reward my toil.—But Hela’s iron chains no hand can breakAgainst her pleasure; and her gloomy soulJoys in the anguish of the tortur’d ghost.
And can that winning form intreat in vain?
115Can Hela hear unmov’d thy suppliant voice?No, Frea, no—upon thy rosy lipsPersuasion fits resistless, charming allTo kind compliance.—Haste, accost the goddess. —
Come from thy murky cells,
120Where midnight darkness dwells,Thou dreadful maid;Come from thy chilly halls.—The weeping Frea calls,And seeks thy saving aid. 125
- (From within.)
Hence, hence, away;No soothing charmsFrom Hela’s armsShall snatch her prey.
By Allfather’s sacred head, 
130Which bowing shakes the lofty sky,And regions of the dead;By the holy ash which rearsIts waving honors high;I charge thee, awful pow’r, 135To quit thy gloomy bow’r,And yield to Frea’s tears.
I come with iron heart,To hear the fruitless prayer;Speak, and swift depart
140To realms of brighter air.
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.
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
150And 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 lookOn this fad scene of desolated charms?—
155Tear the black leaf from Fate’s eternal book,And give the grief-worn Balder to my arms.
Together let us climb the burning arch, Which darts its many-colour’d beams on high;Together let us speed the rapid march,
160And seek the radiant palace of the sky.
Yield, Hela, yield; Valhalla’s mournful towersNo longer echo with the jocund sound,No longer gladness gilds the patting hours,But pale-ey’d Sorrow casts her shadows round.
Since Balder sunk untimely to the tomb,Dim are the lingering beams of rising day,The pale moon shrouds her silver orb in gloomAnd sickly nature doffs her bright array——
Frea, no more,
170When all the gods of nature laveWith briny tears thy Balder’s grave,Then Balder I restore ;Yes, by Allfather’s facred head,When all the gods of nature lave 175With briny tears thy Balder’s grave,He quits the regions of the dead.Hence, away.—
Enough, enough, I mount with speed,And lash my winged steed
180To realms of day.
The Gods assembled in Odin’s Hall.
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?
Great king of gods and men, the only boon
5That Hela granted to my sorrowing foulWas this; when all the gods of nature weepThe briny tear of grief on Balder’s grave,Then from the horrid caves of night he comesTo grace Valhalla’s halls; but golden hope 10Has not yet fled the woe-worn Frea’s bosom ;Still may my soothing words entice the tearFrom pitying gods, and match from Hela’s armsHer splendid prey.—
(Continues addressing Odin.)Lord of the hosts of war,
15In beaming armour bright,Thou driv’st the scythed carAmid the fearful fight—Lord of the starry sky,In dreadful majesty, 20Thou wield’st the golden spear,And call’st with awful found,Cælestials hear,And throng aroundTheir warrior king.— 25The pitchy raven floatsOn glossy wing,Then to Odin hastens nigh,Checks the hoarseness of his notes,And whispers founds of dread futurity; 30He comes from Schulda’s  black abodesTo seek thy piercing look—And Odin reads to listening godsThe Fates’ immortal book.—Say, shall no sorrowing parent’s tear 35Bedew thy Balder’s sable bier ?Wilt thou not weep thy child forlorn,Thy blooming child by Hela tornFrom halls of blissTo caves of dark despair? 40Yes, Odin, yes,I mark the gushing drops which stainA father’s cheek,Those gushing drops thy anguish speak,Balder shall live again 45And cleave the realms of air.
Odin drops the tear,And wets thy Balder’s bier.
- (Addressing Hertha.)
Queen of the fertile earth,Whose all-creative hand
50First gave the sons of man their birth;Whose sweetly founding voiceWith soft command,First bade the desert land rejoice;Bade her fruitful bosom pour 55The shady tree, the painted flower;Bade her people every plain,And fill with life the teeming main ;Whene’er thy stately form appearsOn mortal more, 60No war nor battle’s foundIs heard the world around;No more the armed soldier rearsThe tined lance,And nature groans no more.— 65Before thy silver carThe rosy pleasures dance,Balmy perfume scents the air,Nature smiles in rich array,And double glory gilds the day. 70Say, Hertha, wilt thou drop the tearOn youthful Balder’s sable bier?
Hertha drops the tear,And wets thy Balder’s bier.
- (Addressing Thor.)
God of the floating air
75Whose gleamy lightnings tearThe pine high waving on the lofty rockWhose thunders shake with dreadful shockThe trembling rillsWhose sable storm clouds pour 80The salutary showerAnd swell the parched hillsGod of the howling blastWhose rushing tempests hasteWith sullen roar 85The forest bows its waving pride,The ocean heaves its swelling tideLoud dashing on the shoreGod of the iron maceWhich tames the giant race 90Say wilt thou drop the pitying tearOn youthful Balder’s fable bier
Thor shall drop the pitying tear,And wet thy Balder’s sable bier,
- (Addressing Niord.)
Lord of the boundless deep,
95Whose glittering waters gently swellAnd kiss the rocky steep;When thunders howl aroundAnd tempests yell,Thy moving plain repeats the direful sound; 100Thy foamy waves arise,And lash the darken’d skiesIn dread commotion;—Then by the lightning’s livid glareThou stalk’st serene thro’ murky air 105Which 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; 110Then thou bid’st the roaring mainGently sink to rest again—Smooth its peaceful bosom roseIn calm repose,And stillness hover’d on the gales of spring, 115When Braga touch’d the quivering stringOn Niord’s shore;On its glassy surface floodThe father of the flood,He bade the bard cælestial pour 120His softest notes—The melting music floatsUpon the peaceful wave-Come from thy dewy cave,My father cries, 125Arise, arise,Let the azure waters lateThy snowy limbs and golden hair;Haste in dazzling beauty brightTo charm the tuneful Braga’s fight.— 130He spake, and Frea rose to realms of air.—Then Niord clasp’d me to his breastAnd all the parent’s pride confest.Now, will my father’s heart disdainTo ease his daughter’s piercing pain? 135Or wilt thou drop the pitying tear,On youthful Balder’s sable bier?
Niord drops the tear,And wets thy Balder’s bier.
- (Addressing Surtur.) 
King of resistless fire,
140Whose desolating flamesFrom Hecla’s cliffs aspire,Whose scorching breath,The torch of death,The proudest hero tames; 145Where’er thy furious course is spedNature bows her wither’d head—Thy fatal car outstrips the wind,Thy flaming coursers’ nostrils pourThe, wide consuming shower— 150Destruction flies behind;She rears her red right handAnd with her fiery besom sweeps the blasted land.Say, Surtur, wilt thou drop the tearOn youthful Balder’s sable bier? 155
Surtur drops the tear,And wets thy Balder’s bier.
- (Addressing Lok.)
God of the nether world,Whose deadly arrow hurl’dThe blooming Balder to the caves of night,
160O, let not Schulda writeHis everlasting doom;O, let not Balder’s tombFor ever stand,But match with pitying hand 165From Hela’s curs’d abodeThe fallen god;Revive, revive his wither’d charms,And give him back to Frea’s arms.Drop, O Lok, the pitying tear 170On youthful Balder’s sable bier.
Away, away,Lok ne’er will weep—Let Hela keepHer splendid prey.
By the ghosts’ eternal moan,By the murderer’s dying groansBy the screech-owl’s song of death,By the night-mare’s baneful breath,By the famish’d eagle’s scream,
180By 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, By all the horrors of thy hell, 185I charge thee weep the briny tearOn youthful Balder’s sable bier.
No—tho’ Valhalla’s towering wallAround these sinewy limbs mould fall,Tho’ Skinfax plunge his flaming head
190Amid the caverns of the dead,Tho’ Surtur aim his fiery dartAnd heap his flames around my heart,Tho’ Niord’s foaming main should roar,And dash me lifeless on the shore ; 195Tho’ Thor should hurl his iron maceAnd stain with gore this hated face ;Tho’ Odin’s self in wrath should rearHis golden spearAnd shining shield, 200This stubborn heart shall never yield—Hela shall hold her splendid preyWhile countless ages roll away.
Source: Frank Sayers, Dramatic Sketches of the Ancient Northern Mythology(London: J. Johnson, 1790), 1–25.
 Robert Southey, Thalaba, the Destroyer (London: Longman et al., 1814), viii–ix. BACK
 This was translated as The Death of Balder by George Borrows in 1889. BACK
 William Taylor, Some Biographical Particulars, in Poetical Works (London: W. Simpkin and R. Marshall, 1830), xl. BACK
 Monthly Review (September 1790): 142–3. BACK
 Quoted in A. G. Cross, N. M. Karamazin, A Study of His Literary Career, 1783–1803 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971), 47. BACK
 Monthly Review (January 1819): 44. BACK
 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
 Mimer was a Giant, who guarded the Well of Wisdom. BACK
 The three Norns, the deciders of destiny. BACK
 The name of Odin’s horse was Sleipner, which was eight-footed. BACK
 The infernal river separating earth and the underworld. BACK
 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
 Sayers’s note: “The Rainbow; called by the Goths Bifrost, and supposed to burn. It was accounted the bridge from earth to heaven”. BACK
 Skuld, one of the three Norns. She controls the future destiny of Gods and men. BACK
 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
 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