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In book I of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856), the eponymous narrator describes the experience of reading poetry:

                                But the sun was high
When first I felt my pulses set themselves
For concords; when the rhythmic turbulence
Of blood and brain swept outward upon words,
As wind upon the alders, blanching them
By turning up their under-natures till
They trembled in dilation.

This seems to be a simile in which the reader corresponds to the wind and the words of the poem to the alders. But how exactly does the simile work? How does reading a poem “blanch” the words? How does wind “blanch” the alders? What are the “under-natures” of words and of trees? In what way do trees and words “tremble” and “dilate”?

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Let’s take the trees first. The “under-natures” are the undersides of the leaves, which are “turned up” (made visible) by the wind, and since the undersides are paler than the upper surfaces of the leaves, this makes the whole tree appear paler, “blanching” it. The leaves “tremble” (vibrate) in the air currents, and the whole tree “dilates” (spreads out, widens) as its branches are bent by the wind.

Now, the words. The “under-natures” are the hidden meanings, nuances, connotations and allusions of the words, which are “turned up” (discovered, identified) by the reader. The words of the poems “tremble” (come alive) with “dilation”, that is, the expansion or enlargement of meaning produced by these discoveries.

How exactly this “blanches” the poem I am not entirely sure. The word “blanch” normally has negative connotations—to bleach, make pale, whitewash—but those senses do not seem right in this context. It seems that Browning uses “blanch” to mean “whiten” in the sense “to make morally or spiritually pure” (OED). Here’s another use of the word, from book VII:

No sun could die, nor yet be born, unseen
By dwellers at my villa: morn and eve
Were magnified before us in the pure
Illimitable space and pause of sky,
Intense as angels’ garments blanched with God,
Less blue than radiant.

The word “white” is also used elsewhere in the poem to mean “pure, good”, for example a portrait of the narrator’s deceased mother is described as “swan-like supernatural white life” (book I), and Marian’s “whiteness” (goodness) is “to be found / through all dark facts” (book VI).

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  • This picture of grey alder (a common European species) shows the difference between the undersides and tops of leaves quite clearly. Grey alders aren't native to England, but Browning traveled quite extensively in Europe, so she could have been referring to them. – Peter Shor Nov 21 at 17:47

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