December 12, 2016 by AK
About a month ago I noticed that the opening two lines of T. S. Eliot’s Grishkin poem from Whispers of Immortality (1920) mimic the respective lines of Théophile Gautier’s Carmen (1852). Compare Eliot’s half-stanza
Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye
Is underlined for emphasis…
Carmen est maigre, – un trait de bistre
Cerne son œil de gitana…
(Approximately, “Carmen is skinny. A stroke of bistre // Encircles her gypsy eye…”) Of course I was hardly the first to notice the parallel. Gautier’s poem is a masterpiece. Ezra Pound admired its precision. His Anglophile friend parodically imitated Gautier to highlight Grishkin’s supposed phoniness.
The bistre circles round Carmen’s eyes must have been natural. I have met people whose eyes always seemed to be rimmed with dark, slightly yellowish grey-brown, even when they were in perfect health and without makeup. They all had dark-brown, near-black eyes, which that shadowy contour accentuated. Although natural, it reminded me of the heavy makeup of silent movie stars, which Grishkin might have sported.
There’s a streak of certain nastiness in Eliot’s Grishkin exercise, as if an olfactory precursor to Cats. It reminds me – a loose association, not an analogy – of an early story by Chekhov, Mire. Gautier’s bronze-skinned Carmen has distant relatives in 20th-century Russian literature: for one, Ivan Bunin’s female images. In Song (1905), a girl working on a melon plantation compares herself to more exquisite beauties:
They say that Greek women on the Bosporus
Look good – but I am swarthy and lean.
Or “meager” – the Russian word also means “poor” or “bad” as in “bad crop.” The author’s sympathies are clearly with his dark heroine, but there’s no more exoticizing – the otherness of Bunin’s women is only due to their gender.