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The Persian Version -- Robert Graves

Still in Persia, but looking westward now...
(Poem #515) The Persian Version
 Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon
 The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon.
 As for the Greek theatrical tradition
 Which represents that summer's expedition
 Not as a mere reconnaisance in force
 By three brigades of foot and one of horse
 (Their left flank covered by some obsolete
 Light craft detached from the main Persian fleet)
 But as a grandiose, ill-starred attempt
 To conquer Greece - they treat it with contempt;
 And only incidentally refute
 Major Greek claims, by stressing what repute
 The Persian monarch and the Persian nation
 Won by this salutary demonstration:
 Despite a strong defence and adverse weather
 All arms combined magnificently together.
-- Robert Graves
Although the tone is light-hearted, this is actually a fairly major poem. Graves
is a past master at capturing the exact tone of voice of the figure he wishes to
lampoon [1]; here, the Persian speaker's words leave us in no doubt that the art
of political 'spin' was alive and well several thousands of years ago; his
pompous self-justification, though, betrays its own purpose.


[1] See, for example, 'Welsh Incident', archived at poem #55

[Note on construction]

Like Yeats and Auden, Graves' poetry is written in a remarkably assured
'speaking voice' - it stays strictly within the rules of rhyme and metre, yet
never seems artificial or strained. It takes great skill to be able to craft
words as naturally as those in today's poems; Graves pulls off the task so
adroitly that we hardly even notice the fact.

[Minstrels Links]

This is the fifth in a series of poems based on the theme of 'The Silk Road'; so
far, we've covered China, Mongolia, Samarkand and Persia. You can read the
previous poems at

The final line of the poem - "All arms combined magnificently together" - is
more than a little reminiscent of Southey's "It was a famous victory", the
refrain of 'The Battle of Blenheim', which you can read in full at poem #203

We've done several Grave poems before; there's the uproariously funny 'Welsh
Incident', at poem #55...

the spine-tingling enchantment of 'The Cool Web', at poem #298...

and the bewitchingly beautiful 'Like Snow', at poem #467

If nothing else, these three should serve to show how varied Graves' poetic
output was: I would be hard-pressed to choose a single favourite from among
them; yet they're three very different poems, and I like them for very different

[On the Battle of Marathon]

The 'Greek Version' is chronicled in Britannica thusly:

Marathon, Battle of, (September 490 BC), in the Greco-Persian Wars, decisive
battle fought on the  Marathon plain of northeastern Attica in which the
Athenians, in a single afternoon, repulsed the first Persian invasion of Greece.
Command of the hastily assembled Athenian army was vested in 10 generals, each
of whom was to hold operational command for one day. The generals were evenly
divided on whether to await the Persians or to attack them, and the tie was
broken by a civil official, Callimachus, who decided in favour of an attack.
Four of the generals then ceded their commands to the Athenian general
Miltiades, thus effectively making him commander in chief.

The Greeks could not hope to face the Persians' cavalry contingent on the open
plain, but before dawn one day the Greeks learned that the cavalry were
temporarily absent from the Persian camp, whereupon Miltiades ordered a general
attack upon the Persian infantry. In the ensuing battle, Miltiades led his
contingent of 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans to victory over the Persian
force of 15,000 by reinforcing his battle line's flanks and thus decoying the
Persians' best troops into pushing back his centre, where they were surrounded
by the inward-wheeling Greek wings. On being almost enveloped, the Persian
troops broke into flight. By the time the routed Persians reached their ships,
they had lost 6,400 men; the Greeks lost 192 men, including Callimachus. The
battle proved the superiority of the Greek long spear, sword, and armour over
the Persians' weapons.

According to legend, an Athenian messenger was sent from Marathon to Athens, a
distance of about 25 miles (40 km), and there he announced the Persian defeat
before dying of exhaustion. This tale became the basis for the modern marathon
race. Herodotus, however, relates that a trained runner, Pheidippides (also
spelled Phidippides, or Philippides), was sent from Athens to Sparta before the
battle in order to request assistance from the Spartans; he is said to have
covered about 150 miles (240 km) in about two days.

        -- EB

43 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

David Sharpness said...

The Persian Version is a favorite of
mine...introducing me to what a "reconaissance in
force" is!! Graves is good for that, introducing
ideas, not to good with following through! He writes
in an era when ryhme and such wasn't, isn't, popular,
and I think in diffedence to that he softens the
rhymes to where there almost not there...he liked
Skelton and shoulda said to hellwithallthat and wrote
like Skelton!!

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