Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518

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Auden wrote “Voltaire at Ferney” during what he described as the third period in his career, which covered the years between 1939 and 1946. During this time, Auden underwent profound changes in his religious and intellectual perspectives. After an earlier visit to Spain during its civil war, he became disillusioned with the political Left and began his return to the Anglican faith. In 1939 he settled in New York City and eventually became an American citizen. His works from this time often raise questions concerning the nature of existence, thereby suggesting his reaffirmation of Christianity. They also contain lighter and more romantic verses, some of which lack the unusual style and vigor of his best earlier works.

In one sense the poem is autobiographical. Auden, like Voltaire, had wandered from one country to another and had finally settled down in a distant part of the world. Both men had made personal and intellectual mistakes in their lives. Both had matured and retreated from the more radical ideas of their respective youths. However, maturity did not mean that they had abandoned their most cherished beliefs. Now, both men must gear up for the most important struggles of their lives. Both will use their talents of the pen to further their causes. Many of Auden’s poems from this time express strong antiwar sentiments.

The parallels between the situation in Europe before the French Revolution and the outbreak of World War II are obvious; large-scale violence and bloodshed were about to be unleashed, changing the face of history. In the last stanza, Auden states that “the night was full of wrong,/ Earthquakes and executions.” In Voltaire’s time, an earthquake on All Saint’s Day in 1755 had destroyed Lisbon. Christians wondered how God could have permitted this disaster to happen at a time when so many people were praying in the churches. One Jesuit priest proclaimed that the earthquake was God’s punishment for the vices that were permitted to flourish in the city. Rousseau, however, argued that fewer people would have been killed had they not abandoned the more natural life of the villages. He added that people must remain optimistic and continue to believe in the goodness of God; everything in the end would be right. The only alternative was suicidal pessimism. These kinds of explanations seemed absurd to Voltaire, and they helped prompt him to write Candide. Likewise, a series of miscarriages of justice in France resulted in the execution of several men accused of crimes against God—as well as in the burning of books written by Voltaire, Rousseau, and other philosophers—and persuaded Voltaire to declare war on the Church.

Auden’s final remark about “the uncomplaining stars” appears to acknowledge a certain futility. There are limits to what one person can do to advance the causes of reason and justice. He, like his eighteenth century counterpart, had hope—if little reason for optimism. Nevertheless, they “must go on working.” At that time Auden could not foresee that he, like Voltaire, would return to his native land at the end of his life and be showered with honors.