First Person - October 21, 1998

Remembering Robbie
No one who heard D.W. Robertson read Chaucer can ever forget it

By Lynn Staley *73

By 1969, when I arrived at Princeton, D.W. Robertson had long been recognized as one of the preeminent medievalists of his generation. Together with B.F. Huppé, with whom he had published two books, Piers Plowman and Scriptural Tradition (1951) and Fruyt and Chaf: Studies in Chaucer's Allegories (1963), and R. E. Kaske, he helped to define the exegetical approach to medieval literature. Robbie himself came to define a particular approach ("Robertsonianism") that assimilated literary texts to the vast medieval systems of scriptural interpretation. His major study, A Preface to Chaucer (1962), challenged medieval studies when its tenets were increasingly influenced by the New Criticism; he insisted on the priority of primary texts in interpreting the hierarchical, Augustinian culture of the Middle Ages.

It is a tribute to Robbie's erudition and intellectual curiosity that he did not rest on his laurels, but continued to engage new fields. Chaucer's London (1968) moves away from the focus upon the iconography and exegetical interpretation of scripture that underlies his earlier work and explores the political and historical underpinnings of late 14th-century London. Abelard and Heloise (1972) is likewise an excursion into the history of a period as revealed through the story of medieval culture's most famous lovers. The shape of Robbie's scholarly life can be seen in miniature in the last book he published, Essays in Medieval Culture (1980). The articles he published in retirement, while living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, anticipate the current interest among medievalists in social history.

This brief account does not do justice either to Robbie's achievement or to the amount of controversy it generated. Those who think of the academy as an ivory tower have not been privy to the take-no-prisoners mood of many academic conferences or to the vigor of academic exchanges whose arena is the written page. Robbie entered into the lists of medieval studies with the force of his vigorous mind and pen and voice; he did not shun controversy but courted it. He set himself against an academy that he saw as dominated by a liberal humanist point of view, insisting that we need not agree with or like what we find in the documents we study -- that we must, however, look objectively at an age and seek to discover its peculiar terms of discourse. If those terms are manifestations of a set of beliefs that are foreign to us, if they countermand what we know of the heart, we must nonetheless honor them and recognize their use in literary texts we too often see as reflections of ourselves. Robbie's arguments may have earned him enemies, but the qualities with which he made them -- eloquence, intelligence, courage, and a dislike for unsupported interpretation -- engendered admiration and respect.

That he found himself the spokesman for hierarchical ordering at a time when American universities were the stages for an emerging women's movement and a vociferous antiwar movement may or may not be a coincidence. Certainly he had little affinity for either, and his unhappiness with Princeton students for their stand against the United States's invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970 was palpable. Yet throughout the antiwar era he refused to judge students in terms of their political beliefs. He judged what he was given to read and what was said in class, and he left his personal beliefs out of the equation. This is nowhere so evident as in his support of the few women students who came his way.


This was a time when, at Princeton and elsewhere, women were first moving in significant numbers into graduate schools. Robbie, with his faintly obscene humor, his refusal to be earnest, and his very conservative political stance, could hardly be expected to welcome the sight of women around his seminar table. How then could he joke about lusty wenches or soft bosoms or beds suddenly catching on fire? How could he tell Ovid's already obscene tale of Priapus as that of a supposedly innocent picnic gone awry? How would he handle, from The Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath's rhetorical thrust and parry with his usual barrage of classical humor and patristic citation when her sisters sat taking notes? Such an approach would not go down in today's classrooms -- I doubt even Robbie could get away with it. But what tipped the scales in Robbie's favor was his integrity, intellectual honesty, and interest in an age whose antifeminism he never denied. That he did not deplore it is a tribute to his own historicism, for he refused to superimpose modernity upon the past. Nor did his traditionalism affect the professional careers of any of his female students. He teased with his sweet southern manners, but always encouraged. If he called you "honey child" or grinned down the table when he hit a bawdy pun, that was part of a public performance whose own point was bound up with his sense of the Middle Ages as at once intensely serious but never overtly solemn. "You don't have to be solemn to be serious" echoed around his table, and he was more than capable of turning this dictum upon students overly eager to impose solemnity upon Chaucerian moments.


No one could read Chaucer as he did or could seem to have walked with him through the streets of a vanished London that Robbie knew intimately, sometimes eerily. His seminars could be marvelous windows into the dramatic capacities, the rhetorical nuances, and the flexibilities of Middle English, including its willingness to spawn salacious puns. Robbie, with his deadpan manner, mobile eyebrows, and delayed laugh, would read, and we would begin to understand something about the sheer size of the language Chaucer employed. There must be many like myself who try each year to read the Miller's Tale with as much belly humor as Robbie could bring to class.

His gift for impersonation gave life to the dead: he could stage a conversation between John of Gaunt and John Wyclif as though he had been a fly on the wall, or recount Ovid's tales in a Carolina accent and with down-home details that made them as meaningful as they are slyly ironic. He insisted on the ways in which humor was fundamental to meaning. He shared his ongoing work with us, his moments of revelation, his tremendous interest in literature and cultural history. He insisted that we find proof for what we said in class or wrote in papers. He made it possible for me to learn in ways many professors might not have by giving me the freedom to chase my ideas through Firestone Library, and surely I am not alone in saying I have rarely felt as zestful as I did in that great collection of books. He read the work we turned in quickly and willingly; he praised and criticized. The key to his approach was patience: he would not hound a student to finish chapters or to meet deadlines; you had to be self-directed, but Robbie met you more than halfway, and was quick to promote work he saw as significant.

He was a generous and a shy man, and many of us spent some tense times getting to know him. He could be a "tough date," answering questions with a "yes" or a "no," leaving the other party to dream up another conversational gambit. This could go on for a while, until he became comfortable and his own fund of stories emerged -- childhood, gardening, travel, impersonations of important people ... and that all-encompassing laugh. He sported a Robertson clan tie, and white bucks in summer. His life was a testimony to his discipline and to the support of his wife, Betty, whose common sense and good humor smoothed out Robbie's rougher edges.

It was a great loss to Princeton when, in 1980, he chose to take early retirement and to leave New Jersey for North Carolina. Like many, I have old letters from Robbie that are as warm, intelligent, and human as any I have received. His death occurred just a few days before the 1992 meeting, in Seattle, of the New Chaucer Society, which gave him a moment of official recognition. Robbie, I'm sure, would have preferred the stories that Chauncey Wood *63, another of his former students, and I told sotto voce -- old Robbie stories, not at all solemn.

Lynn Staley *73 is the Harrington and Shirley Drake Professor of English at Colgate University, in Hamilton, New York. This article is adapted from a longer tribute appearing in Luminaries: Princeton Faculty Remembered, edited by Patricia H. Marks *72, published in 1996 by the Princeton Graduate Alumni Association and available from the Princeton University Store (1 800-624-4236).