The function of conceit in poetry is to present an alternative way of conveying the message of a poem. This is either to add a deeper meaning or to conceal the message using a less obvious format. The conceit in poetry has been present in English since medieval times, but is from an older, more classical tradition. It remains a popular trick used in modern poetry across a wide variety of poetic forms.
A conceit in poetry is an extended metaphor. It covers a large segment of the poem and can even encompass the entire poem’s length. As a metaphor, it is a clever substitution of the real story with another. The deep meaning, however, does not change from one story to the other. The meaning is often culturally specific, by ethnicity or religion, and may not be immediately obvious to readers less familiar with the culture.
There are two major types of conceit in poetry and each has its own functions. The first type is the medieval Italian conceit known as the Petrarchan conceit. This conceit revolves around expressions of love. The function is, therefore, to explain a lover’s situation and also to find new ways of expressing the feelings of love. This function is performed by taking a situation or an idea and then expanding, much in the same way the famous “the world is but a stage” metaphor extends outwards to encompass larger ideas.
The original function of Petrarchan conceit in poetry gave way to repetition and cliché. It was replaced by the metaphysical conceit found in metaphysical poetry. The function of the metaphysical conceit in poetry is to extend the credulity of a metaphor to breaking point and to find new, fresh ways of substituting one item or idea with another. An example of this is Andrew Marvell’s poem “Dew Drop,” where he compares a dew drop to the human soul:
“So the soul, that drop, that ray
Of the clear fountain of eternal day,
(Could it be within the human flower be seen,)
Remembering still its former height,
Shuns the sweet leaves, and blossoms green,
And, recollecting its own light,
Does, in its pure and circling thoughts, express
The greater heavens in an heavens less.”
The function of the conceit is to provide a clever means of substituting one thought for another. It is not the function of conceit in poetry to control structure or theme, but to exalt cleverness in poetic form. The ultimate function is to grasp the reader/listener’s attention and to make the reader focus more on the content and meaning of the poem.