Conceit

An Introduction to Conceit (Rhetorical Device)

The usage of the word conceit, in this rhetorical context, is unrelated to the common-known definition of conceit as an arrogant attitude or behavior.

Conceit refers to a metaphorOpens in new window taken to an extended degree. According to Jack Richardson, in his ‘Illustrative Dictionary of LiteratureOpens in new window’, conceit, is “a clever and fanciful metaphor, usually expressed through elaborate and extended comparison that presents a striking parallel between two seemingly dissimilar things.” And he gives this example,

  • ‘elaborately comparing a beautiful woman to an object like a garden or the sun.’

Helen GardnerOpens in new window in her acknowledgement of this device, opines that “a conceit is a comparison whose ingenuity is more striking than its justness;” and that “a comparison becomes a conceit when we are made to concede likeness while being strongly conscious of unlikeness.”

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth during the Elizabethan Age.
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth in the Elizabethan Age (1558 - 1602).

Conceit was extensively used throughout the Elizabethan AgeOpens in new window and Barogue AgeOpens in new window, and was regarded as the principal technique of the 17th century English metaphysical poetsOpens in new window. The device prominently features in the works of Emily DickinsonOpens in new window, John DonneOpens in new window, and T. S. EliotOpens in new window.

Particularly, in one of John Donne’s works titled “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” which correlates with Helen Gardner's observation of a conceit, in which a couple thwarted with distance from each other is given a bizarre comparison to a compass, the lines are adopted below:

  • Dull sublunary lovers' love
    (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
    Absence, because it doth remove
    Those things which elemented it.

    But we by a love so much refined,
    That our selves know not what it is,
    Inter-assured of the mind,
    Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

    Our two souls therefore, which are one,
    Though I must go, endure not yet
    A breach, but an expansion,
    Like gold to airy thinness beat.

    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 differs from allegory, which tends to have a one-to-one correspondence, a Conceit typically takes one subject and explores the Metaphoric possibilities in the qualities associated with the given subject.

Further Readings:
Wikipedia | ConceitOpens in new window
Jack Richardson | Lotus Illustrative Dictionary of Literature: ConceitOpens in new window
ThoughtCo. | What is Conceit?Opens in new window