I'm reading The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and was wondering what was meant by the action of beating one's breast.


The Wedding-Guest here beat his breast,
For he heard the loud bassoon.


The Wedding-Guest he beat his breast,
Yet he cannot chuse but hear;

I assume it's some expression of frustration/distraction/impatience. What does it mean precisely?

  • 3
    Note to @Acorn: I put the quotes back in blockquote format. There is a little-known feature of Markdown syntax that allows you to insert a line break (such as for formatting poetry) by typing two spaces at the end of the line.
    – nohat
    Jun 27, 2011 at 18:37

6 Answers 6


"To beat one's breast" (see definition 18 at the linked site) literally refers to striking your fist against your chest as an expression of sorrow, anger, or woe. Hardly anyone actually beats their breast any more, but the expression survives as a poetic expression that describes any act of public bewailing.

  • Would you say that he is expressing sorrow for the mariner? How would that fit with the second quote where he is beating his breast on hearing the bassoon? Is he maybe expressing sorrow at the situation of having to listen to the mariner instead of being able to enjoy the festivities of the wedding?
    – Acorn
    Jun 27, 2011 at 16:03
  • 1
    @Acorn, in the context of the poem, I believe that the Wedding Guest is expressing frustration and sorrow at missing the wedding. He "heard the loud bassoon" that announces the wedding's start, but he cannot bring himself to leave the Mariner and his tale. Jun 27, 2011 at 17:41
  • @Fumble: Then today you learned something new, ya?
    – MrHen
    Jun 27, 2011 at 17:42
  • @MrHen: I did indeed. I now know not to confuse breast with chest. Jun 27, 2011 at 17:57

"Beating one's breast" is an expression of grief, disappointment, or woe. It is not a common action, but as an expression, it is usually figurative. Dictionary.com says it is an idiom which means "to display one's grief, remorse, etc., in a loud and demonstrative manner".

The idiom derives from older times, when people would actually do it.


The meaning reported from the NOAD for beat one's breast is "make an exaggerated show of sorrow, despair, or regret."


To beat one's breast was a sign of sadness, or more commonly, penitence and remorse. It's basically humiliating yourself by hitting yourself.

One of the earliest examples of a man doing it, would be in Jesus' parable of the two men who went to pray in the Temple, and one of them was remorseful and penitent, and was beating his breast as he prayed:

And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.


To give a sense of the age of the phrase, see this early use in John Rider's Bibliotheca Scholastica, 1589:


For other connotations, here are some quick definitions for some of the other words in his entry:

verbero to lash, beat, whip, flog
diverbero to cudgel soundly
everbero to strike violently, to hit hard
contundo to pound
percutio (percussum) to strike hard, pierce, transfix, shock
incutio to strike into
plango to beat one's breast

Seems plango is the most direct Latin translation. Not sure if this is the root of any other English words that might give a better sense of the original use of the phrase.

I did find that back in the days of legitimate breast-beating, some chose to smite:

And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.

Luke 18:13, KJV

So perhaps originally it was used in the context of contrition and penitence as well as grief.

  • Besides its meaning of “to beat one’s breast” given above, the verb plango (< plangĕre) in Latin also meant to mourn, lament, bewail. The English word plaint derives from it; its use is now chiefly poetic.
    – tchrist
    Jul 29, 2012 at 0:01

Jews (or Israelites?) beat on their breasts on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and said, “Have mercy on me a sinner”. It was a public gesture, because it is not hidden from others.

When I was young and still a Roman Catholic, we used to, in church, beat our breast, i.e., knock with our right fist against our chest. We did this three times during the mass (service) when all present would say out loud a certain penitential prayer, and during the sentence “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” (or, in English: “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”).

I quote from a Roman Catholic web site:

A Confiteor is a penitential prayer where we acknowledge our sinfulness and seek God’s mercy and forgiveness. Confiteors have been part of Christianity from the beginning. St. Augustine notes that it was traditionally recited while striking the breast as a sign of humility, such as is the custom we have today of doing so during Mass when it is recited. The prayer below is the traditional form (sic) of the prayer. It was partially composed in the 8th century and then added to the Mass in the 11th century. The Confiteor in use in the Missal of Paul VI is a shortened version of this one.

I won’t copy and paste “the prayer below” which is mentioned, because the prayer is not addressed to the Father in the name of Jesus as our mediator (“For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” 1 Tim 2:5), but is addressed to an angel plus a whole lot of persons who are still in their graves awaiting the Second Coming of our Messiah.

Beating on the chest is still being done in the Roman church:

September 27, 2011 “Catholics beating their chests again in new translation of Mass”, by Richard Antall – “My most grievous fault”: New English Missal translation brings back the repetition, triple beating of breast.

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