Motivated Forgetting (2)

In my previous post I wrote about evidence of neural activity apparently suppressing the storage and recall of unpleasant memories. This corroborates the idea that a tangible and ‘motivated’ forgetting complements the automatic kinds that are widely recognised: decay over time, interference between memories, and changed physical contexts removing crucial cues. In that post I suggested that literature, in spite of its more obvious role offering things to be remembered, might also involve things to be forgotten.
      I offered two endings in Shakespeare’s plays where attention seems to be turned away from things that the characters, or the audience, might prefer to forget. More precisely, I think the plays offer opportunities for us to think about how forgiving might be a context in which motivated forgetting might be rather helpful. In these plays, if we actually cooperate in forgetting something discordant, we can be aware of ourselves doing it, if we want to.
      In this post I would like to present one of Shakespeare’s Sonnets as an act of forgetting. These are complex poems in themselves, playing complex roles in a complex sequence. My proposition, in summary, is that (i) Shakespeare’s Sonnets are manifestly, explicitly, concerned with the memory of their main subject and recipient, a beautiful young man, and a lot of time is spent considering the poems themselves as the best form in which to create a memorial; that (ii) they challenge readers by not delivering that aim in a purposeful or consistent manner, fascinating but estranging us with repetitions, redirections, and contradictions; and that (iii) they may experiment with the possibility that the speaker might actually wish to remove this memory.
      These posts are meant to be brief and there is so much to say about these poems, and more generally. So, although it probably does not need to be said, I feel the need to stress that I shall only be offering a partial reading of this sonnet:


This is the very last of the ‘young man’ sonnets. The sequence seems to restart itself in the next poem, with a turn to the ‘dark lady’. Sonnet 126 argues that nature is protecting the young man and his beauty from time. In the end, in the final ‘audit’, he will be yielded, and Nature will eventually settle up (the point of ‘quietus’) with Time. The poem only has twelve lines, and the parentheses covering lines 13 and 14 have been discussed a lot: they are marks of omission, but we do not know whether they are taken from the manuscript poem, or a printer’s independent suggestion that there might be something missing. Sometimes people have wondered whether the 12th line seems to expect more – render thee what? It is suggestive to think of the blank as the product of the rendering or of a final and inevitable act of forgetting, the young man ending up as an absence in spite of so much effort in the poems. I think this reading is a bit forced, but it gets at the strange way these poems, so productive in some ways, have counter-productive turns.
      As with the examples from plays in the previous post, the point might well not be that the poem forgets or makes us forget, but that it may be ‘about‘ motivated forgetting, about the need to shrug the shoulders, move on, restart, get on with life (or more poems).

Garrett Sullivan has written an excellent book about forgetting in renaissance drama; yet more relevant is his essay ‘Voicing the Young Man: Memory, Forgetting and Subjectivity in the Procreation Sonnets’, in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ed. Michael Schoenfeldt (Oxford: Blackwell,
2007), 331-342.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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