“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.)