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Conceit- Definition and Examples


What is a conceit?

According to The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a conceit is an elaborate or strained metaphor. The Encyclopedia Britannica elaborates on that definition by explaining that a conceit is a "figure of speech, usually a simile or metaphor, that forms an extremely ingenious or fanciful parallel between apparently dissimilar or incongruous objects or situations" (Britannica). Conceits are supposed to stun the reader with their cleverness and wit. A comparison becomes a conceit when a writer takes the comparison to extremes by forcing the reader to admit that two things are similar when in actuality they are not at all alike.

A good example of this is John Donne's The Flea:

"Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed and marriage temple is;" (lines 10-13)

Donne compares the flea to a marriage bed. The flea takes the blood from the lover and the beloved and mixes them in it's belly to make a baby. He is saying that since their blood already lives together within the flea, they are already bound to each other. The cliche blood is thicker than water springs to mind; blood is more binding than a marriage certificate, so they are already married in his mind, thanks to the flea.

Use of Conceits in Renaissance Poetry

Conceits were especially popular among Renaissance Poets. Conceits were commonly used to show how much one lover suffered at the hands of his beloved by composing a series of exaggerated comparisons between her and some physical object. 

An example of this can be found in Edmund Spenser's Epithalamion:


"Her goodly eyes lyke Saphyres shinning bright,
Her forehead yvory white,
Her cheekes lyke apples which the sun hath rudded,
Her lips lyke cherryes charming men to byte,
Her brest like to a bowle of creame uncrudded,
Her paps lyke lyllies budded,
Her snowie necke lyke to a marble towre,
And all her body like a pallace fayre," (Epithalamion, lines 171-178)


My interpretation of the above lines 

Her eyes are like sapphires,
her forehead is as white as ivory, 
her cheeks are as red as ripened apples, 
her lips are like cherries, 
her chest is as creamy white as un-curdled cream, 
her breasts or nipples (paps) are like lilies that in the early stages of blooming, 
her neck is as white as a marble tower, 
and her body is like a beautiful palace


William Shakespeare offers us another example of a Renaissance conceit, in Sonnets 130:


"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." (lines 1-4)


This sonnet is considered to be an anti-Petrarchan sonnet, because of the language chosen to describe one's beloved; here Shakespeare describes his mistress in less than flattering terms, in a Petrarchan sonnet the mistress would be as beautiful as the most beautiful objects. Shakespeare likens his beloved in the following ways:

Her eyes are not at all like the sun, meaning either dull and lifeless or dark and dim.
Her lips are no where near as red as coral.
Her breasts are a dull grayish brown color (dun).
Her hair is as black and wiry as black wires.

Shakespeare portrays his beloved in a more realistic way; instead of with the rose-colored glasses that Petrarch always described his beloved. 


Use of Conceits by Metaphysical Poets


The Metaphysical poets of the 17th Century chose to use conceits in a more intricate and intellectual way. Commonly, they used conceits to set up an analogy between one entity's spiritual qualities and an object of the physical world. This analogy would occasionally control the whole structure of the poem (Britannica).

An example of how Metaphysical poets used conceits can be found in John Donne's 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 th' 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" (25-32)

Here Donne uses a conceit to compare the two lover's souls to a draftsman's compass. Each leg of the compass represents one lover's soul. One soul is the grounded one that creates a fixed point. The other soul may wander away, but is always connected to the other. The moving soul orbits the fixed soul. The fixed soul supports the wandering soul. They are two halves of a whole; without one, the other would not be able to function properly.

"conceit". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 17 May. 2016


Donne, John. "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning." The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Vol. B The Sixteenth Century/The Early Seventeenth Century. 8th ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 1275-6.



Donne, John. "The Flea." The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Vol. B The Sixteenth Century/The Early Seventeenth Century. 8th ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 1263.



Shakespeare, William. "Sonnets 130." The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Vol. B The Sixteenth Century/The Early Seventeenth Century. 8th ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 1074.



Spenser, Edmund. "Epithalamion." The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Vol. B The Sixteenth Century/The Early Seventeenth Century. 8th ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 907-916. 


Picture Attribution

"compass" by Vivek Raj. Creative Common's License. I have not altered the picture in any way other than scaling it down so that it would fit alongside my content. 

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