Like Fr. Robert Imbelli, I was prompted by Paul Griffiths’s review to read Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work. I found the book challenging in several ways. The writing, though generally lucid and often lyrical, can also be dense, knotted, abstruse. (Rose was a scholar of Continental philosophy, so perhaps this should come as no surprise.) The main challenge of Love’s Work, though, is the demanding nature of its philosophy of love. Rose writes of her many failed love affairs—and the implications of these failures—in an unflinching, unsentimental manner. “There is no democracy in any love relation,” Rose warns, “only mercy.” She explores what she calls “the joy and the agony of loving,” and, in her account, the joy can never be separated from the agony.
Still, despite and sometimes because of these difficulties, Love’s Work is an incredibly rich, illuminating text. At times, Love’s Work approaches poetry in its compressed suggestiveness: “It is power to be able to attend, powerful or powerless; it is love to laugh bitterly, purgatively, purgatorially, and then to be quiet.” This sentence could have come right out of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
Speaking of poetry, the New York Review of Books reissue of Love’s Work includes as a kind of postscript a poem by Geoffrey Hill, and it’s this poem, “In Memoriam: Gillian Rose,” that I briefly want to look at. Like Rose, Hill is a notoriously difficult writer. As critic William Logan has written, Hill “has made brutally clear that the common reader is of no interest to him,” his thorny, allusive verse making “him a poet more despised than admired, and more admired than loved.”