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  • Donaldson and Robertson:An Obligatory Conjunction
  • Ralph Hanna

The oppositional sense that characterizes this conjunction—and our professional memory, first powerfully evoked by E. Talbot Donaldson's student Lee Patterson—actually represents a construction, an untruth, a what-might-have-been (but wasn't). Donaldson's "Patristic Exegesis in the Criticism of Medieval Literature: The Opposition" wasn't delivered with D. W. Robertson, Jr., mounting the defense of a method he had pioneered. The September 1958 English Institute confrontation was with someone else. "The Defense" was produced by Robert E. Kaske, a scholar considerably more knowledgeable about exegesis as a topic than was Robertson.1

A more salient and telling confrontation, at another English Institute, wasn't a case of Donaldson and Robertson head to head either. The two read—quite typical essays from each—on different panels on the same morning at the 1950 meeting: Robertson a paper called "The Historical Critic," Donaldson one called "Chaucer's Vocabulary as Evidence of Artistic Intention."2

Yet, whatever the falsity of historical mythologizing, these stand as two revelatory moments. For these feints at conjunction essentially capture the differences between two outstanding medieval critics of their era. Robertson spoke from a voluminously and overtly (although probably not intelligently) theorized position, one that has guided, if not utterly overdetermined, a vast amount of commentary on his moment. In contrast, the Donaldsonian response was thoroughly particular, implicit, and offered with a typical indirection. Without ever saying directly what he was about, he struck in two ways at the center of Robertson's theoretical claims: that he was a spokesman for historical alterity, and that so speaking was a necessity for understanding medieval literature. Quite typically, both attacks were predicated on the New Critical conception of "intention" (although, equally typically, in a reading implicitly against the grain of views prominently asserted by Yale colleagues).

On the one hand, Donaldson predicated his argument on addressing specific texts. Since Robertson's claim was totalizing (all medieval literature [End Page 240] speaks charity), any plausible counter-reading implicitly exposed the weakness of the claim (and multiplying them would, of course, eradicate it altogether). But Donaldson's demolition was more quietly assertive in the way it went about this: Robertson, after all, tended to argue for intention as non-immanent in a work, as unrecognized (Donaldson might have said "unrecognizable") allusion to something else, not palpably in evidence. In contrast, Donaldson, a keen wielder of Ockham's razor, essentially argued for a palpable intention, one for him grounded in the legible language of a text. This rendered intention, as Robertson conceived it, simply metaphorical maundering, at its best an analogy to or for This Text masquerading as what actually was supposed to be the subject discussed.3

On the other hand, particularly in his lecture/essay on the Miller's Tale, Donaldson essentially poised against Robertson's method what one might see as a form of historicist analysis, but one radically different in its foundations. Donaldson began with what was for him most palpable, Chaucer's language itself. And he used a form of historical knowing, essentially echoes in his head of pre-Chaucerian romance, the "sources" of Sir Thopas, to construct an argument about Chaucer as a poet within a literary-historical tradition. He emphasized the history of poetic styles, and the responses he felt proper for readers to have to them on the basis of those conventional linkages drawn by medieval rhetoricians between styles and genres. Rather than Robertsonian "grand theory," he offered what is logically its diametrical opposite, a passionate attachment to the particular and to a mode of thinking from detail toward some larger whole.

As isolated readings, Robertson's work could be easily dismissible (as Donaldson saw very clearly). Robertson's "method" worked because it was driven by universal principle, from which each reading was in a sense predictable and, equally, offered further affirmation of the generating principle (the classic hermeneutic circle). Each reading simultaneously revealed the necessary unsaid of the text, which not only underwrote true meaning—but also created a hermeneutic joy specific to medieval literature, the act of reading as a decipherment predicated on an obscurity.4 As a result, Robertson...