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 people fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and different 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 Muslim and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you
This is the first stanza of one of the least known poems of W. H. Auden (1907-1973), for some 'the greatest English poet of the twentieth century. Titled 'Partition', the poem was written in 1966, and holds a special meaning for us Pakistanis, and may be also for the Bangladeshis and the Indians.
If, in human history, poetry preceded prose, then the first human records were in verse. The Vedas are the one of the oldest extant books that sing of the seasons, harvests, floods, divine glory and human mischief. This was then the stuff of history. But Aristotle thought otherwise. In his 'Poetics', he famously pronounced that what distinguishes poetry from history is not that one is written in verse and the other in prose, but that history deals with what actually happened while poetry deals with what might have happened. "Thus poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history, for poetry deals in universals, while history deals in particulars", said Aristotle.
He recommends that poets use historical particulars as the basis for their universal stories, since the real is necessarily more convincing than the invented. It is now recognised that poetry being a more concentrated form of language than prose, is more demanding, and therefore more rewarding, for the reader. Today the only way this pronouncement can make sense is if we see history as fact and poetry, art. Yet we know that there is more to history than fact and more to poetry than art. See Iqbal's masterpiece 'Masjid-e-Qurtaba' and WB. Yeats's famous poem 'Easter 1916'. In this poem W H. Auden attempted to understand one of the greatest atrocities of the, post Second World War world — the partition of Punjab into India and Pakistan. The unnamed lawyer is Sir Cyril Radcliffe (1899-1977), who was sent down from London to vivisect British India so that the Crown could be lifted from the subcontinent. A barrister called upon to play the role of a cartographer. Here poet Auden is taking up Aristotle's challenge and follows up his advice by drawing on a particular incident in order to ask some universal questions.
Indian historians, and their propagandists in the West, routinely blame the All India Muslim League, Quaid-e-Azam and Pakistan for this greatest transfer of population in history. Their scholarship glosses over the first demand for partition, which was raised as early as in 1909 by Arya Samaj Party who were fired by pride in a golden Vedic age. "The Punjab had a special place in this mythology, leading the Arya Samajist missionary Bhai Parmanand, arguing for a partition of the northwest subcontinent, to ensure that this holy land was under Hindu control', says Ian Talbot in 'India and Pakistan: Inventing the Nation', 2000). Small wonder that now the BJP waderas have begun to exonerate Mr. Jinnah of the charge of being a communalist.
Seems that Auden had some inkling, though insufficient, of this imposed 'apartheid'.
Shut up in a lonely place
mansion, with police night
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 one 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
A brilliant critique of the poem that I recently chanced upon asks the question; what can a poem do that other historical documents cannot? Three things is the answer. Firstly, "the rhythm and layout of a poem can enact the historical events that it is evoking. Here the isolation of Radcliffe is well brought out by the separation into stanzas. The separation into lines enables the poet to foreground the adjectives he wants to associate with Radcliffe: 'unbiased', 'shut up', and 'afraid'."
One of the aspects of the event Auden wishes to emphasise is the criminal speed with which the partition line is drawn. We know that the Mountbatten was in a hurry to bring down the curtain on the British Empire in the subcontinent. A hurry, which he would have known, would cripple the newborn state of Pakistan.
Secondly, a poem is able to focus on the human in history. Historians tend to falsify by leaving out the human element. Thirdly, a poem forces the reader to work harder than does a piece of historical prose. Language is used suggestively, asking not assuming, the reader's assent to an assertion. The historical 36 days have been expressed as 'seven weeks', the magical number of seven inviting us to think of the difference between the seven days of creation and these seven weeks of destruction.
We know that the last Viceroy was held in thrall of the Nehrus and one of Radcliffe's assistants, YD. Ayer, acted as a mole on behalf of the Congress leadership. Alas, Radcliffe's Secretary spilled the beans, but only in 1992, years after Auden died- He charged Radcliffe with buckling in to political expediency in altering his map and giving Ferozepur and Zira sub districts to India.
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,
It was not Radcliffe, but his Viceroy Louis Mountbatten who got shot, in fact blown up in his pleasure boat off Ireland's northwest coast by IRA on bomber on 27 July 1979. One of the most striking things in the poem is the fact that Radcliffe is never named. That is the very point that Auden wishes the reader to think about: the personal responsibility of the actors in an historical event. Radcliffe is the not the passive plaything of an impersonal historical force, but the active agent of destruction. A poem about a specific historical event inevitably makes a point about history in general.
Can a poem be used as a historical document? Should it be so used? In the case of Auden's partition, the answer of the critics is yes. A poem can be as accurate as to particulars and it can offer a challenging perspective on those particulars. Poems must be studied as historical documents because they ask the big question, for "poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history".