Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 518 words.)