Definition of Conceit

As a literary device, a conceit uses an extended metaphor that compares two very dissimilar things. A conceit is often elaborate and controls a large section of a poem or the entire poem. Conceits are often quite unique and ingenuous, and can present striking juxtaposition and comparison of the unlike things. At times this can mean that the reader is strongly aware of the dissimilarities between the two things being compared in metaphor, yet the conceit broadens the reader’s awareness of the complexity of the things in question. A conceit therefore often contributes to a greater sophistication of understanding about the things being compared due to the surprise factor of the unusual comparison.

The definition of conceit has changed over time. It was an especially popular literary device in the Renaissance Era, and with the so-called metaphysical poets, like John Donne. In the beginning of the Renaissance, the word conceit referred to any fanciful expression of wit. Later, it gained negative connotations, and was used to describe the type of over-the-top comparisons that poets of the Renaissance Era sometimes used to describe their loved ones. Now the word has come to mean an extended metaphor of the kind popular in the Renaissance Era, without positive or negative connections.

Difference Between Metaphysical Conceit and Petrarchan Conceit

There are two types of conceit that scholars recognize: metaphysical and Petrarchan. Petrarchan conceit is named for the Italian poet Petrarch, and applies only to love poetry in which the beloved is compared hyperbolically to extreme experiences or things. It is through these hyperbolic comparisons that the poet demonstrates the blissful heights and desperate lows of being in love. Sometimes Petrarchan conceits are examples of oxymoron, as Shakespeare parodies in Romeo’s insistence that his love for Rosaline is like “bright smoke, cold fire, sick health.”

Metaphysical conceit is an imaginative leap made to compare two very unlike things and explore their similarities. Sometimes a poet can hide the real meaning of the metaphor under the surface of this comparison, while at other times a poet might choose to literalize a metaphor and explore what it would be like if the metaphor were realistic.

Common Examples of Conceit

Some idiomatic expressions are examples of conceit, as they compare things that would not usually be compared. Since they are common idioms, they might not immediately make us realize how strange the comparison really is, but if you think about the comparison for a moment you’ll note how bizarre they must have sounded the first time they were used. Here are some idiom examples that display a conceit:

  • Life is a bowl of cherries
  • Dead as a doornail
  • The apple of discord
  • Bone of contention
  • Fit as a fiddle
  • Don’t get bent out of shape
  • Steal someone’s thunder
  • Spill the beans

Significance of Conceit in Literature

Conceit was a very popular literary device at one point in time, and is not necessarily used all that much nowadays. However, many authors still like to create an unusual or even farfetched extended metaphor that counts as a conceit example in order to surprise and intrigue their readers. Through the use of conceit, writers are able to provide a new way of looking at a situation or object.

Examples of Conceit in Literature

Example #1

How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December’s bareness everywhere!
And yet this time remov’d was summer’s time,
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burthen of the prime,
Like widow’d wombs after their lords’ decease:
Yet this abundant issue seem’d to me
But hope of orphans and unfather’d fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And thou away, the very birds are mute;
Or if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near.

(“Sonnet 97” by William Shakespeare)

In this example of conceit from “Sonnet 97,” William Shakespeare compares his separation from his lover to winter. He uses many examples of seasonal and natural imagery to extend this metaphor, such as “freezings,” “dark days,” and “old December’s bareness.” In reality, as Shakespeare notes, the separation really occurs during the summer and autumn, yet the pain of losing this loved one feels more like the darkness and cold of winter.

Example #2

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

(“The Sun Rising” by John Donne)

John Donne, the most famous of the metaphysical poets, wrote many examples of conceit. In his poem “The Sun Rising,” Donne personifies the sun to be an intruder in his bedroom that he shares with his lover. Donne does not want to start the day and instead stay there with his beloved; the fear he has is not of a person cutting their time short together, but instead the unstoppable sun. Later in the poem, Donne reverses the conceit and gives himself the power of the sun, saying that he could eclipse the sun’s beams and “cloud them with a wink.” This conceit shows both his own feelings for the woman he’s with and the power he feels when with her.

Example #3

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

(“To the Harbormaster” by Frank O’Hara)

Frank O’Hara’s poem “To the Harbormaster” is a much more recent example of conceit. In it, he imagines his lover as a harbormaster and transforms himself into something like a metaphysical sailor. The conceit is not completely straightforward, as at times the “I” voice seems to be human while at other times seems superhuman (“my fathomless arms”). Similar to Shakespeare, O’Hara uses nature imagery and extended metaphor to describe the distance between himself and his lover.

Example #4

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.

(“Diving Into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich)

Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving Into the Wreck” is another contemporary conceit example. The poem has many stanzas in which Rich develops the comparison between looking back at a love affair that has ended and diving into a shipwreck. Similar to the other poets, Rich creates this extended metaphor with imagery of nature and a complex comparison between her emotional state and the physical state of diving.

Test Your Knowledge of Conceit

1. Which of the following statements is the best conceit definition as a literary device?
A. An excess of arrogance.
B. An extended metaphor.
C. A display of wit.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following statements is true?
A. Only Petrarch wrote Petrarchan conceit examples.
B. Only Renaissance writers created examples of conceit.
C. Conceits are unusual comparisons that were especially popular during the Renaissance.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following comparisons is John Donne making in his poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”?

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.

A. Lovers and compasses
B. Feet and compasses
C. Souls and feet

Answer to Question #3 Show

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