Conceit and Metaphysical Conceit


The word ‘conceit’ means ‘a concept or an image’. A conceit in literature is an extended metaphor with a complex logic that governs a poetic passage or an entire poem. A conceit invites the reader into a more sophisticated understanding of a comparison object by juxtaposing, usurping, and manipulating images and ideas in unexpected ways. Extended conceits in English were part of the Mannerism poetic idiom in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

In simpler terms, it is a figure of speech that brings out an interesting or striking comparison between two different things, or situations or ideas to create a new concept. The course of development that one comes across in English poetry suggests that there are two kinds of conceit:

(A) Metaphysical Conceit

(B) Petrarchan conceit

Metaphysical Conceit

The term is generally associated with 17th-century metaphysical poets in English literature, which is an extension of contemporary usage. Metaphors have a much more purely conceptual, and thus tenuous, relationship between the things being compared in the metaphysical conceit. According to Helen Gardner, “a conceit is a comparison whose ingenuity is more striking than its justness,” and “a comparison becomes a conceit when we are forced to concede likeness while being acutely aware of unlikeness.” George Herbert’s “Praise” is an example of the latter, in which God’s generosity is compared to a bottle that can hold an infinite amount of the speaker’s tears.

The metaphor from John Donne’s “The Flea,” in which a flea bites both the speaker and his lover, becomes a conceit arguing that his lover has no reason to deny him sexually, despite the conceit that they are not married:

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Oh, stay! three lives in one flea spare
Where we almost, yea more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage-bed and marriage-temple is.

When Sir Philip Sidney begins a sonnet with the conventional idiomatic expression “My true-love hath my heart and I have his,” but then takes the metaphor literally and teases out a variety of literal possibilities and extravagantly playful conceptions in the exchange of hearts, the result is a fully formed conceit.

Metaphysical poetry was in vogue during the seventeenth century. It was popularized by John Donne. Later on, many of his literary successors like Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, and Richard Crashaw carried on the tradition.

The metaphysical poets ‘shared a philosophical point of view and strongly opposed the mode of the idealized human nature and of physical love which was a tradition in Elizabethan poetry’. Initially, the ‘metaphysical’ school of poetry was looked down upon by the earlier writers. For instance, Ben Jonson had remarked, ‘Donne deserved hanging because he had run roughshod over the conventional rhythm and imagery and smoothness of the Elizabethan poetry.’

Distinct characteristics of metaphysical poetry include extreme use of puns, allegories and conceits which are incorporated into the ordinary speech. Metaphysical poetry is marked by ‘its exaltation of wit’ that indicated ‘nimbleness of thought’ during the seventeenth century. The phrases and terms incorporated by these poets in their writing were inspired from various fields of knowledge. The metaphysical poets were extremely well-read. Their writing reflected their high education as well as the vastness of knowledge. Their poems exposed their deep faith in matters of life and religion. Whereas, if we consider the love poems, then we see that the neo-platonic concept of ideal love is glorified and sensuousness, along with physical beauty, receives a backseat.

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They highlighted the tension arousing in matters of love by incorporating realism in their poetry. Speaking about the metaphysical writers in his essay, T. S. Eliot opines that the metaphysical poets used the conceit as a prominent tool to challenge the existing imagery used in the contemporary writings ‘in order to stimulate both emotions and intellects’. It is also believed that they tried to express their highly sensitive mind and thought process through their poems. They invariably tried to bring together the human body to understand the notion of completion in their poetry.

Scholars suggest that the metaphysical conceit is a process by which a logical argument is presented in a poetic manner. Critic Baldick suggests that metaphysical poetry ‘… is an unusual or elaborate metaphor or simile presenting a surprisingly apt parallel between two apparently dissimilar things or feelings’. Metaphysical poetry flourished at an age that coincided with the development of the age of reason. It is argued by many that metaphysical poetry was the end product of various movements that were taking place as a consequence of social, political, economic, and religious conditions that ware prevalent in that age.

Petrarchan Conceit

In love poetry, the Petrarchan conceit employs a specific set of images for comparisons between the despairing lover and his unpitying but idolised mistress. For example, the lover could be a ship on a stormy sea, and his mistress a “cloud of dark disdain”; or the lady could be a sun, shining her beauty and virtue on her lover from afar.
The paradoxical pain and pleasure of lovesickness are frequently described through the use of oxymorons, such as combining peace and war, burning and freezing, and so on. However, images that were novel in Petrarch’s sonnets became clichés in subsequent imitators’ poetry. Romeo employs tired Petrarchan conceits when he compares his love for Rosaline to “bright smoke, cold fire, sick health”.

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