Graves admitted that “at times the satiric left hand of poetry displaces the lyric right hand,” and “The Persian Version” is a poem written with his left hand but one that also contains a hint of the real pain and suffering he endured in World War I, when so many pointless and useless Allied defeats and deaths were reported to the gullible public as great victories or examples of British fortitude. As he showed in Goodbye to All That, Graves understood that the German public had been fed the same lies. Why should it have been different in ancient times?
This is the premise for “The Persian Version,” where the famous battle of Marathon is put into its true—that is, Persian—perspective. For European history, Marathon was the first and perhaps greatest struggle of democracy against tyranny, the prototype of all subsequent battles for freedom. For the Persians, Graves’s poem says, the event was only a minor event, a “trifling skirmish” upon which “truth-loving Persians” do not like to dwell; the implication here is that the Greeks have lied about the battle, an accusation often levied in wartime. Using terminology from the military, Graves calls Marathon “a mere reconnaissance in force” and notes, as any well-trained military spokesperson would be sure to add, that the ships involved were only “light craft detached from the main Persian fleet.” In other words, Marathon was essentially a local, almost unnoticed event, not the world-shaking clash of legend.
“The Persian Version” is an ironic, even savage poem, which underscores the futility of warfare and the endless idiocies to which governments will go to wrest some shred of spurious victory from even the most obvious defeat, just as the Persians claim to be the victors in this encounter because, despite the losses and deaths, “All arms combined magnificently together.” That is exactly the sort of bombast Graves read while his friends were being killed beside him in the trenches. In “The Persian Version,” he made it a joke, but it is a joke with a serious, bitter center.