Reflections on D. W. Robertson, Jr., and "Exegetical Criticism"
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The Chaucer Review 40.3 (2006) 311-333



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Reflections on D. W. Robertson, Jr., and "Exegetical Criticism"

"I have to day been at youre chirche at messe,
And seyd a sermon after my symple wit--
Nat al after the text of hooly writ,
For it is hard to yow, as I suppose,
And therfore wol I teche yow al the glose.
Glosynge is a glorious thyng, certeyn,
For lettre sleeth, so as we clerkes seyn--
There have I taught hem to be charitable,
And spende hir good ther it is resonable."
(Summoner's Tale, III 1788–96)1

Very few Chaucerians, if any, need to be told about the work, impact, and influence of the eponymous inventor of "Robertsonianism"--a way of working also described as "exegetical criticism." This Princeton scholar has been subject to critical review (sometimes very critical), both during his lifetime and after his death, but one thing is certain: his glossing has not always been called glorious. The reviews have come in waves, beginning with the symposium at The English Institute in 1958 with R. E. Kaske and

E. Talbot Donaldson in fairly polite debate, followed by Kaske's largely sympathetic review in 1963 of A Preface to Chaucer, and Francis Lee Utley's skeptical review in 1965. Then in 1967 appeared R. S. Crane's dismissive discussion (it was originally written in 1961) of "Historical Criticism" and the imperfect logic that led to Robertsonianism. It was in that same year the first attempt to give a broad explicative survey of Robertsonianism and its reception was published by A. Leigh DeNeef. Utley had indicated in his review that Robertsonianism was "brought back to life," which implies somewhat strangely that it, or he, had already died once; but the redivivus–syndrome has been a distinctive feature of the reactions to these programs of glossing, as, for example, in Paul Theiner's essay in 1976 on Robertsonianism and "the Idea of Literary History," which attempted to expose the logical flaws in [End Page 311] D. W. Robertson's ideas of and dealings with history. Indeed, in 1987 (when Robertson had been retired for seven years, but was still alive and publishing), the next wave was nearly a tsunami, as Lee Patterson rode in, beginning his powerful review of Robertson and Robertsonianism by christening their methods with the name of "exegetical criticism" and claiming that "Exegetics remains . . . the great unfinished business of Medieval Studies."2 It turned out that Patterson (as we shall see) was coming not to praise Exegetics but to finish the business of critical humanism by burying Exegetics.

Yet the suppressed returned, the imperishable revenant kept beating his heels on top of the roof. So it was that in 2003–04 (skipping over some other critiques that will be discussed below)--a bit like seventeen-year cicadas, Robertson and "exegetics" made their way into the light once again. This happened at two places, spontaneously, and without intercommunication: the 2003 Modern Language Association (MLA) Meeting at San Diego included a session organized by Grover Furr on the future of exegetical criticism; and the 2004 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo featured three sessions on "The Work and Legacy of D. W. Robertson," organized by the Program in Medieval Studies at Princeton University. The call for papers included this summary: "Just over forty years after the publication of A Preface to Chaucer, and in the wake of the often-noted 'turn toward alterity' in recent years, the time has come to re-evaluate the contributions of the discipline's most famous arch-traditionalist."

That in my own way, from my small corner, is what I attempted to do in Grover Furr's session.3 In this (revised) essay, I will begin with a return to the issue of "glossing," following its several branches and connotations, and then concentrate on the kind most associated with "Exegetics." To the question of its life or death, its continuance as a valuable mode of criticism versus its career as a ghost of Criticism Past, I will propose...