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Literature

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In Literature, What Is Conceit?

By T. Carrier
Updated: May 23, 2024
References

A conceit is a method of comparison used in literature, and it may be viewed as a form of metaphor. The primary feature of this literary device is its originality, since a conceit will often draw a connection between two seemingly unrelated and sometimes vastly contrasting subjects. Two common historical literary subdivisions are the metaphysical conceit and the Petrarchan conceit.

Poetry itself often encapsulates observations about life, the human race, and the surrounding world. These modes of expression often emphasize brevity and the power of using words to create vivid images. Literary methods of comparison like similes and metaphors are one of the most common ways to achieve this mental artwork.

Metaphors involve comparing one person, object, or idea with another person, object, or idea. The two subjects will likely, therefore, share similarities that may not be overt to the casual observer. Often, it is the poet’s, writer’s, or speaker’s job to elaborate on these parallels. In order to draw the strongest possible correlation, one subject is often stated explicitly to be the other subject. For example, ‘he is a pest’ would be considered a metaphor because the phrase uses the stronger and more conclusive ‘is’ rather than the less definitive ‘like’ or ‘as.’

Conceits are notable metaphors for their element of surprise. While some comparisons are obvious and almost self-explanatory, the conceit uses complex and often wildly imaginative associations. Comparing a supreme spiritual being to a small insect or a common everyday item may serve as one such example. In fact, spiritual topics are the centerpiece of one of the most popular types of conceits: the metaphysical conceit.

Another often-analyzed literary topic guides the Petrarchan conceit: love. These poetic forms explore the tangled, paradoxical, and sometimes humorous emotions associated with romantic feelings. For example, in William Shakespeare's sonnet "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?", the narrator likens his love to all of the undesirable elements of summer, such as chaotic winds.

While most language devices like metaphors consist of a simple phrase, some points of comparison can be carried throughout an entire literary work. Whole poems or novels can thus function as one long metaphor. This more involved form of comparison is known as an extended metaphor, and conceits are one particularly prominent and often complicated type. The poet John Donne made frequent use of this literary technique, such as in his poem "A Valediction Forbidden Mourning," where the souls of lovers are compared to a compass.

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Discussion Comments
By SkyWhisperer — On Oct 20, 2011

@Mammmood - I like the literary conceit over the simple metaphor. Conceits are kind of strained, and somewhat tortured metaphors, and their complexity often makes you think.

I believe that conceits are in that sense, more “intellectual” as much as they are artistic, reflecting a lot about the author’s view of the world and not just his penchant for the poetic.

I, too, studied the metaphysical poets, and found that these writers wrote about a world of ideas and philosophies, and yet made them understandable by using conceits and metaphors. I wish we had more of that kind of poetry, frankly, which forces people to really think about the world around them.

By Mammmood — On Oct 19, 2011

It’s interesting that the article mentions metaphysical conceits. I took a course on Baroque literature in college and we studied the metaphysical poets.

One of the best metaphysical conceit examples that I recall came from a poem entitled “Love Bade Me Welcome.” In that poem Love is compared to a hostess of a great banquet, who is inviting a person in.

This person is disheveled, dirty and feels unworthy. What follows is a rhymed dialogue between Love and the individual in which they deal with the feelings of shame and unworthiness, and in the end Love finally persuades the reluctant guest to come in and dine.

It’s a beautiful poem and was made into a ballad from what I understand.

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