This is an older poem and with that comes very different definitions of English words. Even the word in the title has changed its meaning since the time when this was written, 1645 A.D. The girdle has changed its form several times over the centuries. When I think of the girdle, I think of those body baskets worn in the 1800s that women need a second person to squish and strap their bodies into. Now a days, we have Spanx, the modern Lycra version of the girdle. This girdle was something that the knights might wear though it might have been called a sash (as in order of the…). I remember as a student reading about a knights’ Order of the Girdle and giggling a bit imagining knights in ladies underwear. A girdle then was merely a waistband or sash worn outside the clothing.
This poem is a bit of a testament to the life of the English language. Some of it stands in it’s symbolic language and captures the imagination, “A narrow compass! and yet there/Dwelt all that’s good, and that’s fair!” Even in the age of GPS, we still understand what a compass is and how it always points to true North; how his lover is, in his eyes, more grand than a monarch and for him points the way to true North. (Perhaps a little hyperbole on the poet’s part – oh, you are more noble than a Queen.)
Then there are parts that need a little digging into English’s history to uncover its true meaning. “The pale which held that lovely deer” is a bit mystical until we understand that “pale” means “enclosure”. The archaic definition is a place enclosed by a defensive fence built of sharpened pickets, stakes or, as they were known, pales. It also became associated with an enclosure that required royal permission to enter – or, at least, the permission of whichever privileged citizen owned the land (I’m assuming that you’d have to be privileged to be able to enforce such a law).
“It was the heaven’s extremest sphere” doesn’t even encompass the same understanding of the universe that we have. This is the Ptolemaic universe where the world is surrounded by concentric circles of the heavens that revolve around it. You’ve heard the saying, “he thinks the world revolves around him”, well, everyone in this world believed this and Ptolemy gave scientific evidence of it. In the concentric circles were the planets and the stars. The sun got its own circle and so did Heaven – in it’s extremest sphere. He could be saying that he believes that she is from heaven or simply from the margins of society (one of the outer spheres – every society has different spheres or worlds some as organized as the caste system). Perhaps he thinks of her as otherworldly or outside of the norm – someone unique.
I just like the idea that language spoke of the universe in different terms and, in which case, made the universe a different place, a place where we were important, God’s special people – to bad that didn’t extend to people outside of their tribe, they too were a part of this world at the center of the universe.
“Shall now my joyful temple bind” refers to an old custom no longer practiced. It’s similar to a knight wearing the ribbon of a woman that he is championing in a tournament. They used to wear a woman’s ribbon around his forehead to show that she was his, much like a kid in High School might do with a promise ring. A woman now wears an engagement ring to show that she is with a man – that she is about to engage in a committed relationship. Hey, how come the guy doesn’t have to wear anything at all anymore?
So, now we have many circles. The girdle circles the waist, which then circles the forehead. He found her in one of heaven’s many spheres encircled by a fence (much as a woman in a fairy tale might be – either trapped or living in an exclusive kingdom reserved for the special and magical people). He compares this to a compass another circle that measures the world in it’s small way. He says that this small ring is all that he wants, leave the larger sphere – of the common folk – to everyone else. Line 9 and 10 contains a paradox – in this small circle there is contained everything good and fair. Something so small could not contain something so large – all of Good, all things fair?
Then there’s the circle of the monarch’s crown (either his head piece that symbolizes his rule or the top of his head, another sphere). But this is the circle of enforced authority. “His arms might do what this has done.” At first, I thought of the image of a king encircling a woman with his arms around her waist just as a girdle would do, but “what this has done” is a reference to a feeling of love so strong that he wants to commit himself to her – it has captured him. Then it occurred to me that arms might also refer to weapons that a king might use to capture someone. “Arms” in this case is a pun. A pun is usually a word that means one thing, but is used a different way – take toe and tow. In Seattle as you got off the freeway there was a giant pink truck in the shape of a foot with a huge toe at the end. It was used to move cars – a toe truck. In this case, the same word is used for different meanings to give an interesting effect: a man encircling a woman with his arms (appendages from his body) or his arms (weapons).
The first line sounds like a transferred epithet – “That which her slender waist confined.” It reads as if her waist is confined by the girdle, but it is the girdle which confines her waist. I suppose you could read this to mean that her waist is the thing that confines the poet.
This is obviously a love poem and like many of its time goes to great length to celebrate the woman at the center of it. In the sonnets of this time, the woman is always the most beautiful, the most kind, the most talented, more so than any woman now living or will live. Sure, it’s beautiful, but in the day where the divorce rate is at 50%, you want to hear the love poem that the poet will compose after the honeymoon is over.
On a Girdle
by Edmund Waller
That which her slender waist confined,
Shall now my joyful temple bind;
No monarch but would give his crown,
His arms might do what this has done.
It was my heaven’s extremest sphere,
The pale which held that lovely deer;
My joy, my grief, my hope, my love,
Did all within this circle move!
A narrow compass! and yet ther
Dwelt all that’s good, and all that’s fair!
Give me but what this riband bound,
Take all the rest the sun goes round!