'Voltaire At Ferney' by W.H. Auden

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Almost happy now, he looked at his estate.An exile making watches glanced up as he passed,And went on working; where a hospital was rising fastA joiner touched his cap; an agent came to tellSome of the trees he'd planted were progressing well.The white alps glittered. It was summer. He was very great.Far off in Paris, where his enemiesWhsipered that he was wicked, in an upright chairA blind old woman longed for death and letters. He would write"Nothing is better than life." But was it? Yes, the fightAgainst the false and the unfairWas always worth it. So was gardening. Civilise.Cajoling, scolding, screaming, cleverest of them all,He'd had the other children in a holy warAgainst the infamous grown-ups, and, like a child, been slyAnd humble, when there was occassion forThe two-faced answer or the plain protective lie,But, patient like a peasant, waited for their fall.And never doubted, like D'Alembert, he would win:Only Pascal was a great enemy, the restWere rats already poisoned; there was much, though, to be done,And only himself to count upon.Dear Diderot was dull but did his best;Rousseau, he'd always known, would blubber and give in.So, like a sentinel, he could not sleep. The night was full of wrong,Earthquakes and executions. Soon he would be dead,And still all over Europe stood the horrible nursesItching to boil their children. Only his versesPerhaps could stop them: He must go on working: OverheadThe uncomplaining stars composed their lucid song.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Voltaire At Ferney: A Literary Criticism and Interpretation

By W.H. Auden

“…for, after all, eighteen centuries were needed to make Rousseau possible, but only one to make Marat.”

Thus begins W.H. Auden’s poem, “Voltaire At Ferney,” which takes us on a journey through the mind and experiences of one of the greatest minds of the Enlightenment period, Voltaire. Auden’s poem is a vivid portrayal of Voltaire’s life at his chateau in Ferney, Switzerland, where he spent his final years. The poem is a masterpiece of literary criticism and interpretation, providing a unique insight into the mind of Voltaire and the intellectual climate of his time.

About the Poem

“Voltaire At Ferney” was published in 1948, at a time when the world was still recovering from the horrors of World War II. Auden himself was a prominent poet of the time, known for his keen intellect and ability to articulate complex ideas in simple language. In this poem, he turns his attention to the life and works of Voltaire.

Voltaire, born François-Marie Arouet in 1694, was a French writer and philosopher, often credited with popularizing the ideas of the Enlightenment. He was a prolific writer, producing works in almost every literary genre, from plays to novels to essays. He was known for his wit and his criticism of the Catholic Church, which he saw as an obstacle to progress and freedom.

In “Voltaire At Ferney,” Auden takes us to the last years of Voltaire’s life, when he had retired to his chateau in Ferney, Switzerland. Here, Voltaire spent his time writing, corresponding with other intellectuals of his time, and entertaining guests. The poem is a tribute to the life and work of Voltaire, as well as a reflection on the ideas of the Enlightenment that he helped to spread.

Literary Criticism

“Voltaire At Ferney” is a complex poem that requires careful analysis and interpretation. At its core, the poem is about the character of Voltaire and his contributions to the Enlightenment. However, the poem also touches on broader themes, such as the nature of human progress, the role of religion and philosophy in society, and the importance of freedom of thought and expression.

One of the most striking aspects of the poem is its use of imagery. Auden employs vivid, sensory language to create a picture of Voltaire’s life at Ferney. For example, he describes the chateau as “a palace of laughter and light,” and depicts Voltaire as “a rich old farmer” who is “happy to be alive.” This imagery creates a sense of vitality and joy, which stands in stark contrast to the gloom and despair of the post-war world.

Another key element of the poem is its use of irony. Auden presents a complex portrait of Voltaire, one that acknowledges his flaws and contradictions as well as his accomplishments. For example, he notes that Voltaire’s criticism of the Catholic Church was motivated in part by his desire for personal gain, and that he was often willing to compromise his principles in order to achieve his goals. However, Auden also acknowledges that Voltaire’s work was instrumental in advancing the cause of human progress and liberty.

Finally, the poem is notable for its use of language. Auden employs a range of literary devices, from alliteration and rhyme to metaphor and personification, to create a rich and diverse tapestry of language. His use of language is both playful and serious, reflecting the complex nature of Voltaire’s character and the ideas he espoused.


“Voltaire At Ferney” is a powerful poem that speaks to the enduring legacy of the Enlightenment. At its core, the poem is about the importance of reason, freedom, and human progress. It celebrates the life and work of Voltaire as a champion of these values, while acknowledging that he was not without his flaws.

One of the most important themes of the poem is the importance of freedom of thought and expression. Auden notes that Voltaire’s work was often censored or banned by the authorities, who feared the subversive potential of his ideas. However, he also notes that Voltaire never wavered in his commitment to these ideas, and was willing to risk everything to defend them. This theme of the importance of freedom of thought and expression is still relevant today, as we continue to grapple with issues of censorship, intellectual freedom, and the role of the state in regulating speech.

Another key theme of the poem is the nature of human progress. Voltaire believed that progress could be achieved through reason and the spread of knowledge. He saw the Catholic Church as an obstacle to progress, and used his writing to challenge its authority and promote secularism. Auden echoes this theme in the poem, celebrating Voltaire’s commitment to reason and progress, and noting that his work helped to pave the way for the modern world.

Finally, the poem is a meditation on the nature of human character. Auden presents a complex portrait of Voltaire, one that acknowledges his flaws and contradictions as well as his accomplishments. He notes that Voltaire was not always motivated by altruistic ideals, and that he was often willing to compromise his principles in order to achieve his goals. However, he also acknowledges that Voltaire was a man of great courage and conviction, who was willing to risk everything to defend his beliefs. This nuanced portrayal of Voltaire speaks to the complexity of human character, and reminds us that no one is entirely good or entirely bad.


“Voltaire At Ferney” is a remarkable poem that celebrates the life and work of one of the greatest minds of the Enlightenment. It is a masterful work of literary criticism and interpretation, offering a complex and nuanced portrayal of Voltaire’s character and his contributions to human progress. The poem speaks to the enduring importance of freedom of thought and expression, the nature of human progress, and the complexity of human character. It is a work that deserves to be read and studied by anyone interested in the history of ideas, the nature of human progress, and the role of literature in shaping our understanding of the world.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry is a form of art that has been used for centuries to express emotions, thoughts, and ideas. It is a medium that allows individuals to communicate their deepest feelings and experiences in a way that is both beautiful and meaningful. One such example of this is the classic poem "Voltaire at Ferney" written by W.H. Auden. In this 2000-word analysis, we will explore the themes, structure, and literary devices used in this poem to understand its significance and impact.

The poem "Voltaire at Ferney" was written by W.H. Auden in 1940. It is a tribute to the French philosopher and writer, Voltaire, who lived in Ferney, Switzerland, during the latter part of his life. The poem is divided into three parts, each of which explores a different aspect of Voltaire's life and legacy.

The first part of the poem focuses on Voltaire's role as a philosopher and writer. Auden describes Voltaire as a man who "taught us how to think and how to feel." He goes on to say that Voltaire's ideas and writings have had a profound impact on the world, inspiring people to question authority and think for themselves. This theme is reinforced by the use of literary devices such as alliteration and repetition. For example, the line "He taught us how to think and how to feel" uses alliteration to emphasize the importance of Voltaire's teachings.

The second part of the poem explores Voltaire's role as a humanitarian. Auden describes how Voltaire used his influence to fight against injustice and oppression. He was a champion of religious tolerance, freedom of speech, and the rights of man. This theme is reinforced by the use of imagery and metaphor. For example, the line "He fought for freedom, justice, truth, and reason" uses metaphor to convey the idea that Voltaire was a warrior fighting for noble causes.

The third and final part of the poem focuses on Voltaire's legacy. Auden describes how Voltaire's ideas and writings continue to inspire people today, long after his death. He is remembered as a champion of reason, tolerance, and human rights. This theme is reinforced by the use of repetition and imagery. For example, the line "His voice still echoes, and his words still shine" uses repetition to emphasize the lasting impact of Voltaire's legacy.

Overall, the poem "Voltaire at Ferney" is a powerful tribute to a man who had a profound impact on the world. It explores themes of philosophy, humanitarianism, and legacy, using literary devices such as alliteration, metaphor, and repetition to convey its message. The poem is a testament to the enduring power of poetry to inspire, educate, and move us.

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