As is typical of Auden's poetic sensibility, he uses dry humor and irony to comment on a tragic situation.
The 1966 poem reflects back on the 1947 division or "partition" of India into two states, Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a lawyer, was brought in to drawn the line dividing the countries, a very difficult and complex task which the British decided must be done with great speed. Despite Radcliffe's efforts, the partition led to about a million violent deaths because of the carelessness of the British and the high level of tension between Hindus and Muslims.
Auden's poem opens with the unnamed Radcliffe arriving in India in the middle of an already unravelling situation and tasked with the responsibility of deciding on the border. In the second stanza, the poem focuses more tightly on Radcliffe and the challenges he personally faced. In the third stanza, he sails home, never to return, leaving the mess he has created behind him.
The poem uses a singsong tone created by rhyming couplets and humorous details to both reflect and critique the lack of seriousness with which the British treated the partition, doing a quick hatchet job and leaving without having to face any consequences. Even though, for example, the English know the census data they have is probably wrong, they have "no time to check ... no time to inspect." The problem of Radcliffe's dysentery, which causes him diarrhea, is equated with the much more serious problem of dividing the subcontinent, as if the two are equal:
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.
Auden's poem relies on his audience being aware of what his poem is alluding to and the suffering it caused. The speaker's lighthearted tone, which reflects the blithe indifference of the ruling class, is a scathing indictment of colonial arrogance.