In William Congreve's The Mourning Bride (1697), the first line of the play, spoken by Almeria in Act I, Scene 1 is

Music has charms to soothe a savage breast

This is frequently (and understandably) misquoted as

Music has charms to soothe the savage beast

Which suggests music has the capability to calm even wild animals.

What does it mean to soothe a savage breast?

  • "savage breast" = a primitive's heart. The OP is unfortunately 'General Reference'. Google, "soothe the savage breast." – user98990 Jun 13 '15 at 4:23
  • @LittleEva: careful there. Google isn't a valid General Reference source for any question that's on-topic on ELU. – Marthaª Jun 13 '15 at 4:30
  • @Marthaª - I was advising OP that if they Google "soothe the savage breast" they would find the answer to their question. Is there a problem with that? – user98990 Jun 13 '15 at 4:36
  • @LittleEva: yes, there is. If you believe the question is general reference, you may refer the OP to an actual general reference source (dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia) that contains the answer. A list of webpages as returned by a search engine is not a valid general reference source. (Hint: the issue is reliability. How is the OP supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff that is ever so abundant on the internet?) – Marthaª Jun 14 '15 at 15:10
  • @Marthaª - ahh, I was under the impression that a GR question was one that could easily be answered by doing some basic research i.e., Googling key words and pursuing the returns. I believe this to be true of the instant case (because I did that very thing). How would you have responded? – user98990 Jun 14 '15 at 18:28

As appealing as the picture of a single, wild mammary gland rampaging across the countryside, à la Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex, only to be sedated by, say, Ke$ha's dulcet tones might be, the explanation is much simpler:

breast (n.) -- The figurative seat of the emotions, feelings etc.; one's heart or innermost thoughts

Nowadays we are more likely to say "heart" in the same context.


From personal experience:

When people get upset, particularly in "matters of the heart", they feel it in their "chest", referred to as "breast" in times past. That is, they feel like they can't breathe or their heart is racing. This is base emotional pain, i.e., "savage".

And what do people do to "soothe the savage breast"? They listen to -- or write -- music. Ask any heartbroken teenager or song writer.

Most people have experienced this, far more than have ever tried (always unsuccessfully) to soothe a "savage beast" with music, so I don't see why the latter reference is more common, except that most people don't want to think about what sayings actually mean.

For example, most people think "possession is nine tenths of the law" means if you possess something, it is legally almost yours. What it really means is that most laws are about ownership, as opposed to criminal acts.

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