Music for Savage Breasts and Scorned Women

I went searching for a misquotation “Music soothes a savage beast”, and found…

William Congreve writes in his tragic play The Mourning Bride (1697):

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? O force of constant Woe!
‘Tis not in Harmony to calm my Griefs.
Anselmo sleeps, and is at Peace; last Night
The silent Tomb receiv’d the good Old King;
He and his Sorrows now are safely lodg’d
Within its cold, but hospitable Bosom.
Why am not I at Peace?

These are the first words spoken in the play by a character. The speaker is the titular Bride herself, Almeria, and she speaks immediately after music plays; “soft Musick” according to the stage direction. Placed in context the misquoted line makes perfect sense. Almeria is saying “nice music, but it was no help.”

Given the time period, “a savage Breast” likely refers to the native people of whichever continents the Restoration-era English thought was most uncivilized. It’s made clear by the subjects of the second line that a savage was considered nearly as tough as wood or stone. Harsh, but the imagery is so compelling it gives Almeria a powerful juxtaposition to her own grief-induced immunity to the music’s soft appeal. Congreve was known for penning clever dialog, often for actresses he might have been having real life affairs with.

I was floored to learn that in The Mourning Bride Congreve also gave us the vastly more famous “no fury like that of a woman scorned”, which is also a less lovely paraphrasing of two lines spoken by the character of Zara, a captive queen:

Heav’n has no rage, like love to hatred turn’d,
Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorn’d.

I hear you Zara. Sadly, I can’t relate as well to Almeria, having lost the love of her life, not to be soothed by “By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.” I’ve never experienced any emotion that wasn’t helped by the right musical selection, but we live in a golden era of musical variety. Too much variety some would say. The more the merrier, I say. The more savage, the better.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s