“Partition” by W. H. Auden

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the 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 the 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 The maps at his disposal were out of date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 could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. Hugely topical for me as I’m currently in the middle of writing a final year essay on literary representations of Partition! ‘The City & The City’ keeps coming to mind when I’m working on it as well.

  2. Oh, that’s cool. So can you work China’s book into that? (How’s it reading, btw?)

  3. Probably not, although I did manage to work some references to his essay ‘The Quantum Vampire’ into a piece about the supernatural in Victorian & Modernist literature…

    Re. ‘The City & The City’ – I finished it a while ago actually, steamed through it really. It wasn’t my cup of tea to be entirely honest (felt the characterisation was a little flat and that things like that and the plot played second fiddle to the central conceit of the two-cities-in-one – quite Borgesian in that sense) but I could appreciate what he was doing with it. Good on him for trying something new really, and the book’s a reminder that he’s not just “that Bas Lag guy”.