This famous quote is from The Mourning Bride by William Congreve?

Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

So what does "breast" in this quote mean?


‘Breast’ is used here in the following sense:

breast, n. 5.a. fig. and transf. The seat of the affections and emotions; the repository of consciousness, designs, and secrets; the heart; hence, the affections, private thoughts and feelings. (Commonly plural in Old English.)

Oxford English Dictionary

This is clear from the context:

ALMERIA. Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform’d,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.
What then am I? Am I more senseless grown
Than Trees, or Flint?

William Congreve (1697). The Mourning Bride, act I, scene I. London: Jacob Tonson.

Comparing the first two lines with the last two, “knotted Oak” corresponds to “Trees”, “Rocks” to “Flint” and so “savage Breast” must correspond to “I”: that is, it is Almeria’s feelings of grief that ought to be soothed by the charms of music (but are not).

Almeria says that she has read that inanimate things have been moved by music, and I think that the book she refers to is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Arthur Golding’s translation, the music of Orpheus delights “savage beasts”, “stones”, and “trees”:

Now whyle the Thracian Poet with this song delyghts ye mynds
Of savage beastes, & drawes both stones and trees ageynst their kynds

Ovid. Metamorphoses, book XI. Translated by Arthur Golding (1567).

These correspond to the elements in the passage in Congreve, but with a punning change from “beasts” to “breast”.

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