The word ‘conceit’ has been used throughout the history of writing and criticism in a number of different ways. It was, and still is, used to refer to skillful and complicated expressions, usually witty ones. But, sometimes it is used negatively by critics to describe unbelievable situations and dialogue. As mentioned above, within poetry, there are two different kinds of conceits, the metaphysical and the Petrarchan.
Today, most commonly, the word conceit is found within modern literary criticism. It is used to refer to an extended rhetorical device that speaks to a situation that does not exist or does so rarely, but all the same, is needed for the story to go on. Within criticism, the word has a positive and a negative sense.
Positively, it refers to an extended metaphor. These metaphors are complex and govern large sections of poetry, or in some cases, an entire poem. When a poet makes use of a “conceit” they are able to compare two, unlike things in a surprising way. Therefore, making their reader consider the two things differently, and crafting a larger original statement about the underlying theme, or situation of the poem.
Conversely, the word conceit has a negative meaning. It is also used within criticism to refer to a statement that is overly complicated. These passages in literature or poetry seem contrived and therefore unconvincing. A conceit could consist of an outlandish series of events, overly wrought dialogue, or some fundamentally shaky idea around which the characters navigate.
The Metaphysical Conceit
The metaphysical conceit is associated with the 17th century metaphysical poets. It is a complicated and surprising kind of extended metaphor. The two things being compared do not have an obvious relationship to one another, and it is the ingenuity of the conceit which is often more important and striking than whether or not the two things make sense together.
The most famous example can be found in John Donne is ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’. In the last three stanzas of this poem, which are included below, the speaker describes his relationship as a compass.
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.
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.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun
His lover is the “fixed foot” and she “makes no show” to move around unless he wants to. The speaker is the second part of the compass, the one who “roam[s]” around the page. She sits still until he starts moving, then she “leans and harkens” after him. It is due to their connection, and her steadfastness in the “center,” that his circle is made “just”. He is made to end where he “began.” He will always come back to the center because they are tied together.
This example of a metaphysical conceit is so well-known, and well-loved, because of its skillful application. By the end, the strange comparison makes complete sense. Donne has been able to transform one’s understanding of what a compass is, and clearly relate it to a deep emotional connection between two people. As problematic as this relationship dynamic can seem to contemporary readers, the skill with which Donne applied the extended metaphor is inescapable.
The Petrarchan Conceit
The second kind of conceit is the Petrarchan, named for the Italian poet Petrarch. In this form of writing, a male speaker describes his lover through hyperbolic statements. The woman is compared to something dramatic, such as the sun, or the changing tides. In other instances, parts of a woman’s body are used in the same way. Her skin might be like white snow, or her lips like bright red coral.
One of the most referenced examples of this kind of conceit being applied comes from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130. The poem is also known by its first line, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”.
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
It’s in this sonnet the speaker compares his lover’s lips to something better than coral, and her breasts to something whiter than snow. Her cheeks are rosier than roses, and her voice is more pleasing than music. iN the end, the speaker has painted a portrait of the woman he loves that is different from those readers might already be familiar with. He sees her as being better, and beyond the traditional symbols of beauty. They don’t do her justice and therefore had to be discarded.
Take a look at these examples of poems in which the writer makes use of one or more conceits:
- ‘The Flea’ by John Donne
- ‘Because I could not stop for death’ by Emily Dickinson
- ‘To His Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvell
- ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T.S. Eliot