I noticed a little gem when re-reading Richard III. Richard’s hapless brother George, Duke of Clarence, is recounting his nightmare in the tower in a speech from Act 1 Sc 4.
It is a mesmeric description of a classical hell:
With that, methoughts, a legion of foul fiends
Environ’d me about, and howled in mine ears
Such hideous cries, that with the very noise
I trembling waked, and for a season after
Could not believe but that I was in hell,
Such terrible impression made the dream.
I have highlighted the four-word gem I wish to draw your attention to. The description of being surrounded by demons, and of the belief that one is temporarily in hell, is highly evocative of Rimbaud’s prose poem anyway. But to find the two halves of the English title in two succeeding lines is even more striking.
The original French title is the exactly equivalented Une Saison en enfer. It is an unproblematic translation. The word count is the same. The meaning of the words is the same. The word order is the same. No English translator I’m aware of has ever taken the liberty of translating it as anything other than A Season in Hell.
Annoyingly, the major 19C translation of Richard III by Francois Guizot in 1863, a prose translation, excludes the ‘a season’.
A ces mots, il m’a semblé qu’une légion de démons hideux m’environnait, hurlant à mes oreilles des cris si affreux qu’à ce bruit je me suis éveillé tremblant, et longtemps après je ne pouvais me persuader que je ne fusse pas en enfer, tant ce songe m’avait laissé une impression terrible!
Instead, the translator refashions it to ‘longtemps’ i.e a long while. This is a good example of losing poetry in translation. We can see how Guizot makes changes: Shakespeare’s ‘With that’ becomes Guizot’s ‘A ces mots’ (‘At these words’)
It means it is less likely that Rimbaud encountered the phrases ‘un saison’ and ‘en enfer’ in a French translation unless there was another version available to French schoolchildren in the 1860s, one which translated ‘a season’ faithfully.
Rimbaud did however read Shakespeare in English when he began living in London in 1872. His prose poem ‘Bottom’ with title in English corroborates this. It’s possible he may have read Richard III in English and somehow that passage – and somehow those four magic words – stayed in his mind.
But we must surely applaud Shakespeare for dreaming up – at least before Rimbaud – the notion of being in hell for a season.