A conceit is a type of extended metaphor. Originally used in poetry, it can be the comparison between two super dissimilar things or a lover to objects of perfection. These days, conceits are used in novels and mediums such as film. If you have seen Woody Allen's film, Midnight in Paris (2011), you would have seen a motion conceit in full colour.

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Table of contents

    Conceit: poetry

    Conceit was first used as a term to refer to the extended metaphors used in certain types of poetry. It applies to two main schools, the Petrarchan and the Metaphysical conceit. Let's take a look at some examples.

    Petrarchan conceit

    Francesco Petrarch was a poet who wrote in the 14th century, during the early Renaissance. Considered the creator of the Petrarchan Sonnet, he also made extensive use of conceit as a poetic device. The Petrarchan kind of conceit compares the physical attributes of a woman, usually a lover, to celestial bodies and other grand symbols of beauty.

    Petrarch used a straightforward Petrarchan conceit in his 'Sonnet 90' (unknown).

    She let her gold hair scatter in the breezethat twined it in a thousand sweet knots,and wavering light, beyond measure, would burnin those beautiful eyes, which are now so dim:and it seemed to me her face wore the colourof pity, I do not know whether false or true:I who had the lure of love in my breast,what wonder if I suddenly caught fire?Her way of moving was no mortal thing,but of angelic form: and her speechrang higher than a mere human voice.A celestial spirit, a living sunwas what I saw: and if she is not such now,the wound's not healed, although the bow is slack.

    Here Petrarch describes his now-dead lover's eyes as being better than the 'radiant west'. Radiant is about as bright as you get, so the poem implies that her eyes are bright beyond description. Her walk is described as more than merely 'mortal', inferring that she is a higher being, which is further emphasised by the 'divine among the dreary folk'.

    Later Renaissance-era Petrarchan conceits tended to be more rooted in purely physical descriptions. A subversion of the theme, if not the form, Shakespeare’s 'Sonnet 130' (1609) mocks the hyperbolic comparisons in Petrarch's 'Sonnet 90'. The speaker admits his lover is not only mortal and that her breath reeks but also says that he believes his love to be as rare as ones with grander comparisons.

    A hyperbole is an exaggerated or far fetched statement that is meant to create an impression rather than be taken literally.

    Petrarch wrote many poems about a woman thought to be Laura de Noves. De Noves was born in 1310, the daughter of Hugues II de Sade. She rejected all of Petrarch's advances as she was married at 15. She died young, at age 38, after bearing 11 children.

    Although his love was unrequited, it did lead to the creation of the Petrarchan sonnet.

    Conceit, Petrarchan conceit, Laura de Noves, StudySmarter

    Petrarch's muse, Laura de Noves.

    I grant I never saw a goddess go;

    My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.

    And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

    As any she belied with false compare. (lines 10 -14)

    Would you rather be compared to a celestial spirit or would you prefer to be reminded of the relative realism of stinky breath? Do the different approaches serve the same purpose?

    Metaphysical conceit

    The so-called metaphysical poets were a loosely defined group of very dissimilar poets who wrote during the 17th century, during the Baroque era. The conceit is a key characteristic of most metaphysical poets. As the origin of the metaphysical conceit, Donne created careers for poets like Abraham Cowley, who imitated his style until it eventually went out of fashion.

    Metaphysics is the philosophical branch that considers abstract principles of being, identity and even space or time.

    The Metaphysical poets were considered to be a group of poets who wrote intellectual poems during the 17th century. Their work is divergent but some common characteristics are word play, wit and conceits that compare the concrete and the abstract. John Donne and Abraham Cowley were both considered to be metaphysical poets, who wrote poetry characterised by conceits and a philosophical approach.

    The Baroque era was considered to have run from the 17th to 18th centuries. It was a movement across art, architecture, literarture and music that favoured the emotional, sensory and the extravagant.

    The metaphysical type of conceit is the surprising comparison between two very different things such as lovers and a mathematical compass. Unlike the Petrarchan sonnet, which tended to describe two physical entities, the metaphysical conceit involved a comparison between an abstract quality and a physical object. Usually, the conceit lasted for the duration of the poem and was central to the poem’s meaning. Metaphysical conceits tended to favour the intellectual over the sensual.

    John Donne’s 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.' (1633) is a great example of a metaphysical conceit.

    Written shortly before a long journey to Continental Europe, Donne wrote the poem about his wife, Anne. He compares two lovers, himself and his wife, to the legs of a compass. Each stanza reinforces the metaphor by adding more similarities between the legs of a compass and the lovers. In the age that the poem was written, love or lovers had not traditionally been compared to practical objects that were merely functional. His description of the lovers and the compass highlights their interdependency and connection.

    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.

    Conceit, two open compasses, StudySmarterJohn Donne compared lovers to a compass.

    Conceit in literature

    In modern literary criticism, the term conceit has been made broader to include novels and even other forms of artistic media like films. It can still refer to an extended literary device that links two seemingly disparate themes or objects. It can now also refer to a novel or film that relies on an idea, metaphor, or imaginary device as central to its plot. For example, a science fiction novel about humans who question their humanity after teleporting to an alien planet, contains two central conceits, as teleportation and knowledge of life on other planets do not yet exist.

    Modern uses of the word have also shifted its meaning. Although the term conceit can still be used to merely describe an aspect of Petrarchan sonnets or a metaphysical poem, it is now also used to describe heavy-handed comparisons or overwrought prose. Generally, you will be able to tell which meaning has been attached to the word by the context you find it in.

    Conceit examples

    Outside the original poetic examples that we have looked at already, there are many more modern examples of conceit across a few different genres.

    Conceit in poetry

    Although conceit generally went out of fashion during the age of Shakespeare, poets like Emily Dickinson made use of conceit in their poems. In her poem, 'Because I could not stop for Death' (1890), she compares the act of dying to a carriage ride.

    The poem is considered to include a conceit as the extended metaphor runs throughout the entire poem, compares two seemingly dissimilar things, and is crucial to the meaning of the poem. Similar to some metaphorical conceits, it also compares the concrete with the abstract.

    Because I could not stop for Death -

    He kindly stopped for me -

    The Carriage held but just Ourselves -

    And Immortality.

    We slowly drove - He knew no haste.' (lines 1 -5)

    Conceit in idioms

    Another type of conceit is the short version that exists in some idioms. An idiom is an expression that is understood despite not making sense in any literal way. Your parents or grandparents may still use some of these. These are conceits as there is a comparison of two divergent objects or even the physical with the abstract.

    It’s the best thing since sliced bread.

    Used to describe something amazing, often an invention. You wouldn’t usually think of sliced bread as innovative unless you had to slice bread all the time.

    Conceited/windy as a barber's cat.

    These idioms refer to a person who is arrogant or boastful. The term ‘a barber's cat’ was a slang term used to describe someone who was a ‘windbag’ in the early Victorian era.

    As happy as a clam.

    This is used for someone who is super content. Clams are happiest at high tide when they are protected from predators, so this is an understandable but unexpected comparison.

    Conceit in a sentence

    How conceit is used in a sentence depends on the context and which version of the meaning you want to use.

    For the poetic version an example is:

    John Donne used the poetic device of conceit in his metaphysical poem 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.' to compare lovers and a compass.

    For a more modern literary version, an example could be:

    The central conceit in Ray Bradbury's A sound of Thunder (1952) is time travel, which does not yet exist.

    For a negative or critical version, an example would be:

    The poem is just the prolonged agony of cliqued conceit.

    Conceit - Key takeaways

    • A conceit was originally used to describe a poetic device used in Petrarchan sonnets and poems considered part of the metaphysical movement.

    • A Petrarchan conceit is used to compare a woman’s body to typically grandiose or even otherworldly objects.

    • A metaphysical conceit compared seemingly juxtaposed things in a way that showed how they were similar. It Often compared physical objects with abstract concepts.

    • Conceit is now used more broadly in modern literary criticism and covers novels and even films.

    • Everyday uses of conceit include some idioms.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Conceit

    What are some examples of conceit?

    Examples of the poetic device conceit can include Petrarchan sonnets and Metaphysical poems.

    Other examples can include central conceits in novels or films, as well as short conceits in some idioms.

    What is an example of a conceit?

    An example of a conceit is John Donne's poem, 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.' (1633). This is an example of a Metaphysical conceit.

    How do you use the term conceit?

    This depends on the context and type of text you are describing. For poetry you would use the terms Petrarchan conceit or Metaphysical conceit.

    For novels or films, the term central conceit is more often used.

    What is a conceit in figure of speech?

    Conceit in a figure of speech or idiom is when two very different things are compared. An example is:

    'As happy as a clam'.

    What are the functions and importance of conceit?

    This depends on the type of conceit and the type of artistic work it is being used in. 

    An example would be to highlight the physical attributes of a lover by comparing them to celestial bodies or equally grand earthly objects. This was important as it established a form of sonnet that was used by poets for centuries.

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