What is Conceit?

The conceit is a kind of metaphor in which an unusual comparison is extended by using witty and forced argument. This is a device that was made popular by a group of poets called the metaphysical poets in the seventeenth century. The conceit is a striking metaphor.

It is so original and unconventional that it not only strikes the reader into attention, but sometimes shocks them, being even objectionable or absurd at first. It is unconventional and apparently absurd to compare a beloved with a candle! But then the poet goes on to ‘justify’ it by using witty and ingenious argument so as to make us understand and experience the “occult resemblance” between the entities being compared.

The conceit uses an analogy which is so striking and incredible at first. For example, John Donne uses ‘flea’ as a symbol of unity in love in his poem "The Flea’. This seems to be ‘ironical’ or absurd at first. But, in its own dramatic situation, and as the speaker begins to argue, the comparison becomes more and more convincing. The speaker in the poem "The Flea" tells his beloved not to kill the flea which has sucked the blood of both because it is three lives together, a unity, a trinity, and so on.
The extension of the comparison is done in a relentless manner. The development of the logic is done by twisting and turning the comparison with the help of new and striking ideas, images, allusions, and words of different fields. The speaker in "The Flea", for instance, goes on to call the flea a marriage bed, a temple of love, and so on. The conceit is not just the basic metaphor, but the comparison and the argument as a whole. In a sense, the conceit usually spreads throughout the poem.

The conceit is an extension of the simile in which aspects of the basic analogy are developed with a kind of relentless ingenuity. The metaphysical poets of the late sixteenth and the seventeenth century, specialized in witty conceits. To quote Mrs. Bennet, “conceit is a focal point at which emotion, sense impressions and thought are perceived as one.” Intellectual element is the distinguishing quality of the metaphysical conceit. Metaphysical conceits communicate a unified experience and at their best, they show themselves as the fine balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.

The use of conceit was criticized by critics like Dr. Samuel Johnson as "heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together". It was a poetic device of disrepute for a long time until T.S. Eliot highlighted metaphysical poetry in the 1920's. The conceit is again a very common metaphorical device in modern poetry. For example, see the following conceits from Donne:

This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is

(The Flea)

Published on 23 Jan. 2014 by Kedar Nath Sharma

Related Topics

John Donne: Biography

The Flea: Analysis

Metaphor: Introduction