W.H. Auden on Partition

Since on the “Brown Roundup” thread, there was some spirited discussion about baby Prince Louis and his being named after Lord Mountbatten, I was reminded of W.H. Auden’s poem “Partition”. It’s a short poem, so I’m just going to copy it out from my edition of Auden’s Collected Poems (Edited by Edward Mendelson).  The poem appears on pages 803- 804 of the volume.

Partition

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission

Having never set eyes on this land he was called to partition

Between two peoples fanatically at odds,

With their different diets and incompatible gods.

“Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late

For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:

The only solution now lies in separation.

The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,

That the less you are seen in his company the better,

So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.

We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,

To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.”

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day

Patrolling the gardens to keep assassins away,

He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate

Of millions.  The maps at his disposal were out of date

And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,

But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect

Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,

And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,

But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,

A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot

The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,

Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

–May 1966

 

The poem speaks for itself.  The central character (never actually named in the poem itself)  is Sir Cyril Radcliffe.

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