Conceit in Literature | Conceit in Metaphysical Poetry

Conceit in Literature

Conceit in Literature


Metaphysical poetry is deemed as characteristically striking, different from conventional romantic or social poems. One of the most striking features of metaphysical poetry is decisively perceived in the presence of conceits, rather in the fondness of metaphysical poets to employ conceits to express their thoughts and ideas.

What is Conceit?

A conceit invites a comparison in which there is more of incongruity than of likeness. A conceit is a far-fetched imagery or type of extended metaphor.

A conceit, indeed is “like a spark made by striking two unlike stones together.” After the flash the stones remain, just the same stones.

Ingenuity is here more striking than propriety. A profoundly intellectual stir is caused by the contrast between utterly unlike things. A comparison becomes a conceit, when, conceit likeness, the consciousness of unlikeness is strongly felt. A brie comparison is a conceit, if two things, patently unlike, or which should seldom be thought of together, are shown to be alike in such a way in such a context that their incongruity is clear.

Conceit in Metaphysical Poetry

Metaphysical poetry is found abound in such flashes of wit, evoked by the contrast of unlike elements, and this may well be illustrated from the poems of Donne, Vaughan, Marvell and other leading metaphysical poets, all of whom are found to excel in the subtle and diverting use of conceits.

Metaphysical conceits

A metaphysical conceit, however, is not employed for its own sake, It is not merely descriptive, illustrative, or decorative, like the epic simile but a positive, though precise, force. It is used to persuade or to define, or illustrate, or prove a point. In fact, it aims at conceding justness, while admiring ingenuity.

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John Donne’s use of Conceit

Thus, in one of the most famous of all metaphysical conceits in Donne’s A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning the comparison of the union of the two absent lovers to the relation between the two legs of a compass is conceived admirably. Donne sustains the comparison through the whole process of drawing a circle, because he is attempting to give a proof, by the analogy of their union, by which he can finally persuade his mistress not to mourn for the separation. In the same, manner, unity in diversity in the matter of love is well emphasized.

In the poem The Good Morrow, through another conceit, in which explorers and sea-discoverers and maps are introduced

“Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,

Let maps to other worlds on worlds have shown

Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.”

Donne’s conceits are really provocative, and this is particularly evident in his comparison of the lovers in the poem The Good Morrow. They are like two hemispheres ‘without the sharp North or the declining West.’ The concluding words of the poem specifically convey a concern in which the poet finds their love so unified that ‘none do slacken and none can die.’

“If our two loves be one, or, thou and I

Love so alike that none do slacken, none can die.”

The marvel of Donne’s conceit comes out particularly in his singular poem, The Flea. The popular theme of unity in diversity in love is expressed here in a more original and exceptional way. This little insect is shown as the link of the lovers, and this invites a comparison which is inconceivable, unimaginable in conventional poetry:

“The flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.”

In the poem The Anniversary, the complacent mood of the lovers is signified in the conceit of kings:

“Here upon earth, we’re kings, and none but we.”

In Donne’s Holy Sonnet No.  1 (Thou hast made me), the poet’s spiritual optimism is well borne out in the quite unusual conceit in the Concluding line of the poem-

“And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.”

Henry Vaughan’s Use of Conceit

In Vaughan’s The Retreat, the conceit is striking in the poet’s comparison of his soul, long absorbed in earthly matters, to the drunkard, staggering in the way. Equally happy is the conceit of the poet’s backward steps to indicate his retreat to heaven-

“Some men a forward motion love

But I hy backward stops would move :

And when this dust fails to the urn.

In that stale I came, return.”

Andrew Marvell’s Use of Conceit

Marvell’s conceits are also aptly conceived, as seen in his poem To His Coy Mistress. The Platonic abstract love, without the warmth of the bodily passion, is finely characterized as “vegetable love” that grows vaster than empires. The fond faith in the long continuance of lovemaking is sharply satirized in a well-conceived conceit:

“I would love you ten years before the Flood :

And you should if you please refuse

Till the conversion of Jews.”

Perhaps, a more striking conceit in Marvell’s poem is the ‘amorous birds of prey’, used in connection with the poet’s assertion of the utmost enjoyment of life and love in this transitory world. His conceit is equally original in the expression ‘iron gates of life.’

Another well-known poem of Marvell The Garden marks, in the same felicitous way, the uniqueness of the metaphysical conceit. The Conception of the happy garden or the skilful gardener in a spiritual sense is truly witty, admirable, yet meaningful.

George Herbert’s Use of Conceit

In Herbert, the employment of conceits is much simpler. Yet, his description of God’s gifts to man, after the creation, in the poem The Pulley is given out in a well chosen but hardly Christian conceit of a glass. The sublime and the common place are here synthesized in the characteristic metaphysical manner.

Again, in the poem Virtue, Herbert represents the triumph of virtue by means of several images of the materials which hardly have any spiritual significance. Thus, the Doomsday is shown through the imagery of coal-

“But though the whole world turned to coal.”


Metaphysical poetry, whether secular or religious, is original, and has a singular technique of its own. The extensive employment of conceits is a distinguishing feature in this technique of image-planning.

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