‘A Season in Hell’ – Shakespeare

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.


About Niall McDevitt

Niall McDevitt > poet > author of b/w (Waterloo Press, 2010) and Porterloo (International Times, 2012) > urban explorer > radical pedestrian who leads Shakespeare/Blake/Rimbaud /Yeats walks, among others.
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2 Responses to ‘A Season in Hell’ – Shakespeare

  1. Arthur Rimbaud: a spiritual prince who temporarily went to hell (via Camden Town).

    Now it seems possible that Rimbaud titled his Saison from one of Shakespeare’s history-plays. McDevitt uncovers a brilliant and convincing vector between the two great poets of England and France.

    As he stares across the Victorian Styx the lines from Clarence’s soliloquy come to mind. He repeats and condenses them – as he essentializes everything – and comes up with the title of his confessional masterpiece. Lotta mist everywhere, shadows like angels. A London waterman standing-in for Charon.

    Gonna link to this piece in an upcoming statement on Rimbaud.

    • Hi Aidan

      Thanks for your enthusiastic comment. Excuse delay in writing. I have finally managed to find my way through the cyber labyrinth and approve your fine and poetic wordage.

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