Conceit and Metaphysical Conceit

The word ‘conceit’ means ‘a concept or an image’. 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) the Petrarchan conceit and
(b) the metaphysical conceit.

We will more or less focus on metaphysical the conceit that was mainly employed by the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century like John Donne, Andrew Marvell and George Herbert.

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.

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