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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.4 (2001) 765-783

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Forgetting FitzGerald's Rubáiyát

Erik Gray

Edward FitzGerald's Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám constantly advises the reader to forget--preferably with the help of a drink: "Ah, my Belovéd, fill the Cup that clears / To-day of past Regret and future Fears." And again--"Oh, many a Cup of this forbidden Wine / Must drown the memory of that insolence!" 1 Readers have not forgotten the Rubáiyát: by the end of the nineteenth century, it "must have been a serious contender for the title of the most popular long poem in English," and since then it has steadily continued to appear in innumerable (usually illustrated) editions. 2 Critics, on the other hand, seem to have taken FitzGerald at his word. The critical corpus is small; even major recent studies of Victorian poetry scarcely mention the poem. 3 Yet, ironically, it is the Rubáiyát's treatment of forgetting that marks it as a central text not only of Victorian poetry but of a rich and continuing literary tradition.

FitzGerald's poem gives a new twist to a widespread mid-Victorian preoccupation, the problem of striking an appropriate balance between memory and oblivion. Matthew Arnold, for instance, spoke out against an educational system founded upon rote memorization: "taught in such a fashion as things are now, how often must a candid and sensible man, if he were offered an art of memory to secure all that he has learned . . . say with Themistocles: 'Teach me rather to forget!'" 4 The need for forgetfulness continues to be a pressing issue at the end of the century for writers of the Aesthetic school; indeed, "aesthetic" literature often explicitly aspires to an anaesthetic condition. Consider, for instance, Dorian Gray's words, with their echo of Arnold: "[I]f you really want to console me, teach me rather to forget what has [End Page 765] happened." 5 And the tradition has continued on into the twentieth century, most notably in the work of Jorge Luis Borges, a great reader and critic of Victorian literature. 6 Borges's heroes, in their obsession with memory, seem to be such prime candidates for Freudian analysis that it is easy to overlook the fact that they often find their closest models and analogues not in Freudian case studies but in nineteenth-century literary texts.

Among poets of the period, Alfred, Lord Tennyson and FitzGerald were the two most deeply concerned with the question of memory. I wish to begin with a brief discussion of Tennyson's poetry up to and including In Memoriam A.H.H., a poem of commemoration which nevertheless seriously questions the desirability of memory. Tennyson's ambivalent feelings about "Blessèd, cursèd, Memory" date from the very start of his career; poems such as "The Lotos-Eaters" express a longing for oblivion mingled with intense anxiety. 7 I shall argue that this anxiety stems from the important role played by memory in Tennyson's troubled conception of "dead selves"--the states a being passes through as the soul matures. Turning then to the Rubáiyát, which may well have been written partly as a response to Tennyson's elegy, I examine the formal means FitzGerald uses to efface his poem from the reader's memory. 8 In the concluding section, I offer a consideration of the poem's publication history, suggesting that readers have never forgotten the Rubáiyát paradoxically because they are unable to remember it precisely.


In section XLI of In Memoriam, Tennyson grieves over his sense of estrangement from Arthur Hallam:

But thou art turned to something strange,
        And I have lost the links that bound
        Thy changes; here upon the ground,
No more partaker of thy change. 9

The problem is not that Tennyson has forgotten Hallam but quite contrarily that he remembers so well. A too vivid memory, rather than bringing the past nearer, tends to render it unfamiliar, in the same way that an old snapshot...


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