What is a Conceit in Poetry

 This article explains what conceit in poetry is and covers,
     1. Metaphysical Conceit
          – Definition, Characteristics, and Examples   

     2. Petrarchan Conceit
          – Definition, Characteristics, and Examples

What is a Conceit in Poetry

A conceit in poetry is an extended metaphor that makes a comparison between two dissimilar things. The term conceit is used in two concepts in poetry; conceit can either refer to the conceits in metaphysical poetry or conceits used in Petrarchan sonnets.

Metaphysical Conceit

Metaphysical conceit is an extended metaphor used to make a comparison between two very different things. Creating unconventional and audacious metaphors and similes to compare very dissimilar things was a major characteristic of metaphysical poetry.

A comparison becomes a conceit when the poet tries to prove a similarity between two very dissimilar things to the reader who is very conscious of the differences between the said two things. A conceit provides a more complex and sophisticated understanding of a comparison. Thus, this comparison governs the whole poem or poetic passage. This comparison of entirely dissimilar things also proves the skills of the poet.

The images used in conceits were never conventional: metaphysical poets did not repeat the well-worn poetic images such as teeth like pearls or cheeks like roses. Instead, they displayed their knowledge on a wide range of subjects such as science, trade, mathematics, etc. Therefore, the conceit also brought an intellectual tone to poetry.

Examples of Metaphysical Conceit

John Donne is one of the most prominent metaphysical poets who used conceits in his poetry. In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”, he compares two lovers to the two legs of compasses. He states that bodies of the lovers may be united, but like the two legs of the compass, they are joined at the top.

“If they be two, they are two so As stiff
Twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.

And though it in the center sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.”

John Donne also another clever conceit in his poem “Flea”. In this poem, he compares the flea to a union between two people. He argues that their blood has become mingled when the flea sucked blood from both of them. He uses this argument to persuade his love interest to initiate a sexual relationship.

“Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be..”

What is a Conceit in Poetry

John Donne

Petrarchan Conceit

Petrarchan conceit, which was popular during the Renaissance, is a hyperbolic comparison to describe a lover. These conceits were often used in love poetry to compare a lover to grandeur physical objects such as sun, moon, gems, etc.  

This conceit is named after the Italian poet Petrarch who was famous for using such hyperbolic comparison. In his famous poem “Lasciato ài, Morte, senza sole il mondo,” (Death, you have left the world without a sun), Petrarch introduces the hyperbolic comparison between his mistress and the sun.  The Petrarchan was used and refined by English writers such as William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser. For example, in “Romeo Juliet”, Shakespeare uses conceit to describe Romeo’s love for Rosaline.

“Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
Dost thou not laugh?”

Conclusion

The term conceit has two meanings in poetry. A metaphysical conceit is an extended metaphor which creates an unconventional comparison between two very dissimilar things. A Petrarchan conceit is a hyperbolic comparison where the lover is compared to a grand physical object like sun, moon, diamonds, etc. 

Image Courtesy:

“John Donne” (Public Domain) via

About the Author: Hasa

Hasa has a BA degree in English, French and Translation studies. She is currently reading for a Masters degree in English. Her areas of interests include literature, language, linguistics and also food.


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