I just finished reading “Blight” by Ralph Waldo Emerson and had to get right on the computer to write about it. The poem basically describes the spiritual, social, and environmental impacts of deforestation. On one hand, I was impressed by the fact that Emerson had the vision to foresee where we were headed, but conversely, I was disheartened by the fact that we failed to address the issue and have allowed “progress” to continue the rape of the planet.
The poem begins with a description of the forest where Emerson lists various plants and asserts their medicinal importance: “Their fragrance, and their chemistry apply/ By sweet affinities to human flesh,/ Driving the foe and stablishing the friend.” Emerson clearly understood that the chemical properties of various plants were important and needed to be studied to determine their benefits.
The poem then turns to the scholars and engineers of that period, people enamored by the industrial revolution, who showed no regard for biodiversity and proceeded to clear-cut large swaths of land: “But these young scholars, who invade our hills,/ Bold as the engineer who fells the wood,/ And travelling often in the cut he makes,/ Love not the flower they pluck, and know it not.” Even in the 1800’s, people were losing their respect for the environment and were only interested in development and the extraction of resources that would bring the fastest and greatest financial return, or as Emerson writes, “For we invade them impiously for gain.”
The poem concludes with a description of the physical and spiritual degradation that humans experience as a result of their selfish exploitation of the planet: “And nothing thrives to reach its natural term,/ And life, shorn of its venerable length,/ Even at its greatest space, is a defeat,/ And dies in anger that it was a dupe.” We are duped into believing that we need all this stuff, that our imagined comforts and financial security is worth the exploitation of resources, but in the end we will die with nothing and realize we bought into the lie. Essentially, we are creating our own suffering.
This poem is very powerful and I have to say is the greatest of all the poems that I’ve read by Emerson so far. The more I think about it, the more deeply I feel affected by what he wrote. I encourage you to click here to read the poem in its entirety. Be prepared to be moved.