The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Voltaire at Ferney” is a short poem consisting of thirty-six lines divided into six stanzas. Each stanza contains two or three sets of lines that rhyme. A casual reading of the poem and its title suggests that the author is merely portraying a scene in the life of François-Marie Arouet, better known to history as Voltaire. In fact, W. H. Auden had reviewed books about the famous French philosopher. (He assumed that the reader was familiar with the life and times of Voltaire and therefore did not provide any background information.) A thorough reading of the poem reveals that Auden essentially constructed an epigram in which he attempted to develop a psychological profile of Voltaire. His approach is analytic and conceptual, and there are no dramatic scenes. The poem, however, takes on additional meaning when one considers the period of time in which it was written as well as the changes that were taking place in Auden’s own life.

In the beginning of the poem, Voltaire is surveying the ancient estate of Ferney, located in the county of Gex, which borders on Switzerland. In 1754 he had settled in Geneva, being persona non grata in both France and Prussia. In 1758 he had acquired Ferney when his relationships with the leaders of Geneva were becoming strained. (Voltaire’s friend and associate Jean Le Rond d’Alembert had published an article on Geneva that revealed the personal failings of its Calvinist clergymen.) Ferney was in...

(The entire section is 533 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

To Auden ideas were not vague abstractions of the mind. They were real things that shaped the terms and conditions of the unending struggle for democracy and socialism. Auden’s affectionate portrait of Voltaire attempted to capture both his relatively unimportant personal failings as well as his larger contributions to the important causes of reason and justice. It was at Ferney that Voltaire learned of the arrest, torture, and murder of the Huguenot Jean Calas by the Catholic authorities in Toulouse and began his struggle against the abuses and ineptitude of France’s ancien régime.

In the third stanza Auden assumes a subtly critical attitude toward the motives, methods, and character of Voltaire and his philosophical contemporaries by describing them as a group of rebellious schoolchildren who want to defeat “the infamous grown-ups.” Voltaire is presented as “the cleverest of them all,” who does not hesitate to lie when necessary and is willing to bide his time until the moment is right. In the fourth stanza Voltaire reflects upon those who might have been effective allies in his crusade. These include d’Alembert, who compromised himself by drawing a pension from the court, the “great enemy” Blaise Pascal, the “dull” Denis Diderot (who espoused an unacceptable system of materialistic atheism), and the weak and sentimental Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Voltaire did not seem to care if anyone took offense at his scandalous conduct. He carried on a scientific partnership and openly adulterous affair with Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breuteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, who is mentioned in the fifth stanza. His relationship with his niece, Marie Louise Mignot Denis, can only be described as disgraceful even by the standards of the court of Louis XV. Yet Auden is not entirely without sympathy for Voltaire’s desire for the more sensual pleasures. At the end of the fifth stanza, he writes that Voltaire had “done his share of weeping for Jerusalem” and that “it was the pleasure-haters who became unjust.” However, Auden may also be suggesting that Voltaire was too confident about his chances for success and that his lack of humility and sense of propriety detracted from the larger causes.