The Prince of Aquitaine

14 November 2010

I don’t fly that often, but I did last week, and when I come back into London after dark it always reminds me of ‘The Prince of Aquitaine‘, a song written by Pete Atkin and Clive James (yes, that Clive James) which I must have first heard thirty years ago.

It captures two things: both the ‘thrill of fear’ of the landing, and the privilege of the flying classes. The anticipation first:

I flew home into the city after dark and in the clear
With a seat beside the window and the usual thrill of fear
When the spoilers send you sliding down the drain.

Spoilers? They reduce lift.

Flying, even now, is the prerogative of the better off, and in the 1970s, when the song was written, this was more true. This theme runs through the song, well, like whisperlines. For example:

The highway lights of sodium are cut and set like gems
They run like this in whisperlines until they reach the Thames
Their afterimage wealthy in the brain
Beneath the bridge’s footway in the shelter of the stair
A cripple plays harmonica for pennies from the air
While the river proffers answers to his pain.

And, of course, it’s exemplified by the chorus: “And to the ruined tower came the Prince of Aquitaine”.

The line comes initially from El Desdichado, a poem by Gerard de Nerval (“Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie”) though Clive James says he borrowed it from an extract that T.S Eliot included in The Wasteland. We know this because the record that The Prince of Aquitaine is on, Driving Through Mythical America, having been out of print for a while, was rescued last year by Demon, those fine curators of mislaid music, and reissued with notes by James and Atkin. (He used the previous line of Nerval’s quoted by Eliot as the inspiration for another song, The Shadow and the Widower).

I think that Driving Through Mythical America is probably their best record. On the vinyl version the second side is one of those rare “perfect sides”, one of those pleasures that has disappeared with the advent of CDs and downloads. But that’s a post for another day.

The picture is an engraving by Henri-Georges Adam, featured in a post on Adventures In The Print Trade, which includes a series of seven variations of English translations of The Prince of Aquitaine. There’s also an interesting essay by Richard Sieburth on the difficulties of translating Nerval’s dense allusive poetry.

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