Poor as Irus.

On the one hand, I am constantly feeling like a latecomer to culture, having to figure out allusions that I would have been aware of had I been educated a century or so earlier. On the other hand, living as I do in the twenty-first century, I have blessedly little trouble figuring them out. I’ve gone back to Karamzin’s «Письма русского путешественника» [Letters of a Russian Traveler], to which, as I said here, I return whenever I need a break from my reading schedule, and I’m greatly enjoying his stay in Paris in the spring of 1790 — what a time to be young and traveling in France! (I confess, though, I do skim or skip his lengthy descriptions of paintings, statuary, and the like, written in a sentimental style that was all the rage at the time but is fairly tedious now.) Karamzin describes Bieder, the fellow he hired to show him around (German by birth, though he’s long forgotten the language, he sleeps in the attic above Karamzin’s rooms at the Hotel Britannique on the rue Guénégaud), as “беден, как Ир, а честен, как Сократ”: poor as Ir and honest as Socrates. But who was Ir? A little googling told me he is known in English as Irus; he’s the greedy beggar Odysseus meets and knocks out on his return to Ithaca in Book 18 of the Odyssey: “Arnaeus was the name his mother had honoured him with at birth, but all the young men called him Irus, because he ran errands on demand” (Irus [Ἶρος] is a masculine form of Iris [Ἶρις], the messenger of the gods). Brewer, of course, has an entry:

The beggar of gigantic stature, who kept watch over the suitors of Penel’ope. His real name was Ar’neos, but the suitors nicknamed him Iros because he carried their messages for them. Ulysses, on his return, felled him to the ground with a single blow, and flung him out of doors.
    Poorer than Irus. A Greek proverb, adopted by the Romans (see Ovid), and existing in the French language (“Plus pauvre qu’Irus”), alluding to the beggar referred to above.

And in Russian, “бедный/беден, как Ир”; the Национальный корпус русского языка finds five occurrences, in Karamzin, Lazhechnikov, Herzen (twice), and Saltykov-Shchedrin. There’s a Greek epigram purporting to be an epitaph for Epictetus:

Δοῦλος ᾽Επίκτητος γενόμην, καὶ σώμ’ ανάπηρος,
    καὶ πενίην ῏Ιρος, καὶ φίλος ἀθανάτοις.

The traditional translation is:

Slave, poor as Irus, halting as I trod,
I, Epictetus, was the friend of God.

While I’m on the subject of Karamzin, one pleasure of reading the Letters is occasionally running into the germs of future (and now better known) writings of his. In the section where he describes some of the streets of Paris, he visits the Rue de la Grande-Truanderie because of a sad event that took place there centuries earlier:

Агнесса Геллебик, прекрасная молодая девушка, дочь главного конюшего при дворе Филиппа-Августа, любила и страдала. От Парижа далеко до мыса Левкадского: что же делать? броситься в колодезь на улице Трюандери и концом дней своих прекратить любовную муку.

Agnès Hellebick, a beautiful young woman who was the daughter of the head equerry at the court of Philip Augustus, loved and suffered. From Paris it is a long way to the Leucadian rock [from which Sappho supposedly leaped to her death out of love for Phaon]: what could she do? She threw herself into a well in the Rue de la Truanderie and put an end to the torments of love along with her life.

Surely this is the source of his most famous story, “Poor Liza,” which I discussed briefly at the end of this post. And when he meets Pierre-Charles Levesque, he tells us that although Levesque’s History of Russia is very good, it has serious inadequacies:

Больно, но должно по справедливости сказать, что у нас до сего времени нет хорошей российской истории, то есть писанной с философским умом, с критикою, с благородным красноречием. Тацит, Юм, Робертсон, Гиббон – вот образцы! Говорят, что наша история сама по себе менее других занимательна; не думаю: нужен только ум, вкус, талант. […] Левек как писатель – не без дарования, не без достоинств; соображает довольно хорошо, рассказывает довольно складно, судит довольно справедливо, но кисть его слаба, краски не живы; слог правильный, логический, но не быстрый. К тому же Россия не мать ему; не наша кровь течет в его жилах: может ли он говорить о русских с таким чувством, как русский?

Painful though it is, justice requires me to say that to this day there is no good history of Russia, one written with a philosophic mind, with critical ability, with noble eloquence. Tacitus, Hume, Robertson, Gibbon — those are models! They say that our history is in its own right less entertaining than others, but I disagree: one only needs intellect, taste, talent. […] Levesque as a writer is not without gifts, not without merit; his comparisons are adequate, he tells a story adequately, his judgments are adequate, but his brush is feeble, his paints are not lively; his style is correct and logical, but not rapid. Furthermore, Russia is not his mother; it is not our blood that flows in his veins: can he speak of Russians with as much feeling as a Russian?

A quarter of a century later, Karamzin would begin publishing his own history of Russia, which would not only replace Levesque’s as the standard account but would be considered by Russians as the height of Russian prose style. I wonder if he was already considering trying his hand at a better version when he was setting down those remarks?


  1. His ‘History’ arguably left the strongest influence on Russian consciousness but there is another History which may have left an equally strong trail, ‘The History of Russia in Stories for Children’ by Alexandra Ishimova.

  2. marie-lucie says

    A Greek proverb, … existing in the French language (“Plus pauvre qu’Irus”),

    This is the first time I have heard of Irus or of the alleged phrase.

  3. there is another History which may have left an equally strong trail, ‘The History of Russia in Stories for Children’ by Alexandra Ishimova.

    Thanks for that, I’ve added her to my Prose Chronology!

  4. This is the first time I have heard of Irus or of the alleged phrase.

    Well, of course; like me, you were born a century too late for such knowledge. But Voltaire, for example, wrote:

    Jadis le pauvre Irus, honteux et rebuté,
    Contemplant de Crésus l’orgueilleuse opulence,
    Murmurait hautement contre la Providence…

  5. marie-lucie says

    Merci, LH, I don’t think I have ever read Voltaire’s poetry (if that can be called poetry).

    The descriptive “le pauvre Irus” is not the same as the comparison “plus pauvre qu’Irus” which the quote implies is (or was) a common phrase.

  6. Well, it says “existing in the French language,” not “common in the French language”; I suppose it might have been used only once or twice. Googling seems to suggest that French writers used it pretty much exclusively in reference to the Greek saying.

  7. marie-lucie says

    That’s what I would expect. It is a translation, not really become part of the language.

  8. Vaguely remembering that Karamzin was reared at a German boarding school, I googled “(der) arme Irus”. The most common hit is 1750 engraving/print, “Der Arme Irus”, coupled with “Der Reiche Croesus”.

  9. Sir JCass says

    Iro (Irus) is the comic glutton in Monteverdi’s penultimate opera Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. He has a long, pun-filled lament after the suitors are killed, when he realises he will no longer be able to eat in the style to which he is accustomed.

  10. tetri_tolia says

    I just found it in Rabelais! I love how, soon after you learn something like this, the senses are attuned and you begin to notice it everywhere…

    “Then, in turning to Epistemon, he [Panurge] said: Lo here the true Olus of Martial, who addicted and devoted himself wholly to the observing the miseries, crosses, and calamities of others, whilst his own wife, in the interim, did keep an open bawdy-house. This varlet is poorer than ever was Irus, and yet he is proud, vaunting, arrogant, self-conceited, overweening, and more insupportable than seventeen devils; in one word, Ptochalazon, which term of old was applied to the like beggarly strutting coxcombs. Come, let us leave this madpash bedlam, this hairbrained fop, and give him leave to rave and dose his bellyful with his private and intimately acquainted devils, who, if they were not the very worst of all infernal fiends, would never have deigned to serve such a knavish barking cur as this is.”

    (Book III, chapter 25 “How Panuge Consulteth With Herr Trippa”)

  11. Excellent find!

  12. I wouldn’t have put it past Urquhart to introduce a classical allusion that wasn’t in the source, but no, there it is in the original too (Le tiers livre des faicts et dicts héroïques du bon Pantagruel ch. XXV):

    « Voyez cy le vray Ollus de Martial, lequel tout son estude adonnoit à observer et entendre les maulx et miseres d’aultruy — ce pendent sa Femme tenoit le brelant — il, de son cousté, paouvre plus que ne feut Irus, au demourant glorieux, oultrecuydé, intolerable, plus que dix sept Diables, en un mot, πτωχαλαξών, comme bien proprement telle peaultraille de belistrandiers nommoient les Anciens. […] »

  13. Rabelais must have gotten ptochalazon from Athenaeus’s Deipnosophistae (6.17):

    οἶδα δὲ κἀγώ τινα πολίτην ἡμέτερον πτωχαλαζόνα, ὃς δραχμῆς ἔχων τὰ πάντα ἀργυρώματα ἐβόα καλῶν τὸν οἰκέτην ἕνα ὄντα καὶ μόνον, ὀνόμασι δὲ χρώμενον ψαμμακοσίοις, ‘παῖ Στρομβιχίδη, μὴ τῶν χειμερινῶν ἀργυρωμάτων ἡμῖν παραθῇς, ἀλλὰ τῶν θερινῶν.’

    And I am myself acquainted with one of our own fellow-citizens who is as proud as he is poor, and who, when all his silver plate put together scarcely weighed a drachma, used to keep calling for his servant, a single individual, and the only one he had, but still he called him by hundreds of different names. “Here, you Strombichides, do not put on the table any of my winter plate, but my summer plate.” (tr. C. D. Yonge)

  14. The “true Olus of Martial” is in Epigram 7.10, which I don’t really care to translate here, since I’m applying for high school teacher jobs. There is a Latin text and Italian translation here: http://www.latin.it/autore/marziale/epigrammi/!07!liber_vii/010.lat

  15. Here’s an English translation from 1897, which buries the sexual references under the usual Victorian cloak:

    Eros has a Ganymede, Pinna is strangely fond of women; what is it to you, Olus, what either of them does with himself? Matho pays a hundred thousand sesterces to a mistress: what is it to you, Olus? It is not you, but Matho, who will thus be reduced to poverty. Sertorius sits at table till daylight: what is it to you, Olus, when you are at liberty to snore all night long? Lupus owes Titus seven hundred thousand sesterces: what is it to you, Olus? Do not give or lend Lupus a single penny. What really does concern you, Olus, and what ought more intimately to concern you, you keep out of sight. You are in debt for your paltry toga; that, Olus, concerns you. No one will any longer give you a farthing’s credit; that, Olus, concerns you. Your wife plays the adulteress; that, Olus, concerns you. Your daughter is grown up, and demands a dowry; that, Olus, concerns you. I could mention some fifteen other things that concern you; but your affairs, Olus, concern me not at all.

  16. Trond Engen says

    The “true Olus of Martial” is in Epigram 7.10, which I don’t really care to translate here, since I’m applying for high school teacher jobs.

    That’s just wrong.

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