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Metaphysical Conceit & Petrarchan Conceit

Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a master's degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

John Donne: A Metaphysical Poet, who made extensive use of metaphysical conceits in his poetry.

John Donne: A Metaphysical Poet, who made extensive use of metaphysical conceits in his poetry.

Definition & Etymology of Conceit

The word conceit has been derived from a Latin word concipere, which means to take to oneself, or to take into the mind. The word conceit implies one’s perception of something, or to conceive something. It is a figure of speech, wherein the author perceives an object as something else. He may personify or objectify the object. Britannica Encyclopedia defines conceit as, “conceit, figure of speech, usually a simile or metaphor, that forms an extremely ingenious or fanciful parallel between apparently dissimilar or incongruous objects or situations.”

Conceit is a far-fetched comparison between two totally different objects. The dissimilarity between the objects is really so vivid that the readers are caught napping to figure out how the author has compared the two objects. Seemingly, there is no resemblance between the two things; nevertheless the author brings out similarity between the objects.

Types of Conceit

Metaphysical Conceit

Metaphysical conceit is a kind of conceit, which was invented by a group of 17th century poets, identified as Metaphysical Poets. In hassle-free words, a conceit is generally defined as a far-fetched analogy between two opposite things unlike a simile or a metaphor, which is a direct comparison between similar things, is called a metaphysical conceit. Even though, conceit is either a simile or a metaphor, yet it is remarkably different in its structure, comparison, and subject matter from them. Britannica Encyclopedia defines the metaphysical conceit as, “The metaphysical conceit, associated with the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century, is a more intricate and intellectual device. It usually sets up an analogy between one entity’s spiritual qualities and an object in the physical world and sometimes controls the whole structure of the poem.”

Features of Metaphysical Conceit

Metaphysical conceit is a comparison between two different things unlike simile or metaphor.

  • It is exotic and long-winded to such an extent that it can be almost difficult for a reader to grasp its meaning without deep concentration.
  • Novelty is a pretty important feature of a metaphysical conceit. New ideas are put forwarded by the poets to startle the readers.
  • Every metaphysical conceit is an elaborate analogy between two completely different things.
  • Unconventional and wordy vocabulary is yet another attribute of metaphysical conceit.
  • Unification of sensibility is a substantial characteristic of metaphysical conceit. The metaphysical poets blend thoughts and feelings in their conceits.
  • The poet’s main top priority is almost always to show up his knowledge through the metaphysical conceit.
  • Metaphysical conceits are predominantly drawn from religion, astronomy, alchemy, astrology and superstition.
  • Metaphysical conceit is not a piece of embellishment, rather; it is a part and parcel of the entire poem.

Redpath is of the view that:

“A firm and even a stern realism is often imparted to the poems by the references to war and military affairs, death, law, politics, medicine, fire and heat business, the human body, and many of the features of home life; while, on the other hand, a certain lofty strain of strangeness is often provided by the references to scholastic doctrine, astronomy, religion, and learning; and a lofty strangeness is injected by the references to alchemy, astrology and superstition.”

Examples of Metaphysical Conceit

John Donne is a prominent metaphysical poet in this regard. He has excelled every other poet in the usage of metaphysical conceits. His entire poetry is a superb example of metaphysical conceits. In A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, he urges his wife not to mourn as he will almost certainly get back after some time. He compares their souls to the two legs of a compass. The stationary leg is his wife at home, while the leg that is revolving around the fixed leg usually means the poet’s soul. The circle is the journey made by the poet. He is of the view that the rotating leg must return to the base of the compass and join the other leg. Look at the lines take from 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 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.

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(A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning by John Donne)

John Donne’s The Flea offers an excellent example of metaphysical conceit. The flea bites the poet as well as his beloved. His beloved gets angry and is just about to kill the flea, when the poet right away interrupts her and prevents her from killing the innocent flea. He tells her that doing so ; she might actually murder three living beings as our blood has already intermingled with each other inside the flea . That being said, killing of the flea suggests killing of three souls. He compares the flea to a marriage bed and marriage temple, where the two lovers make love with each other. Consequently, killing of the flea is tantamount to murdering three living souls. Look at the following stanzas, which explain this far-fetched conceit beautifully:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,

How little that which thou deniest me is;

It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,

And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;

Thou know’st that this cannot be said

A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,

Yet this enjoys before it woo,

And pampered swells with one blood made of two,

And this, alas, is more than we would do.

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 mariage bed, and marriage temple is;

Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met,

And cloistered in these living walls of jet.

Though use make you apt to kill me,

Let not to that, self-murder added be,

And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

(The Flea by John Donne)


Petrarchan Conceit

The Petrarchan conceit is a kind of metaphor, which was employed by the Italian poet Petrarch in his love poems in the 14th century. The Petrarchan conceits extensively flourished in the Elizabethan age. Elizabethan poets imitated the Petrarchan conceit to a great extent in their love poetry. It is a kind of conceit, wherein the poet suffers a lot at the hands of his indifferent and hardhearted beloved. According to Wikipedia,

The Petrarchan conceit is a kind of exaggerated comparison between tow things, wherein, the poet compares his beloved to something physical object- moon, ocean, sun etc."

Characteristics of Petrarchan Conceit

  • In a Petrarchan conceit, the poet’s beloved is a paragon of virtue and beauty.
  • The poet’s primary consideration is always to appreciate the beauty of her mistress lavishly.
  • Generally, the poet is basically in a very depressed situation. He is actually depressing, miserable, distraught and dissatisfied on account of apathetic behavior of her beloved.
  • The poet compares her beloved to something inhumane thing and dwells upon his own sorrow, distress and gloom.
  • Usually, the poet is rejected by his beloved. That is why; he always exaggerates his agony.
  • In Petrarchan conceit, the poet is symbolized as a shepherd.
  • All Petrarchan conceits are not original in their contents. They are stereotyped and hackneyed kinds of conceits. The majority of the poets borrow their ideas from other poets.
  • Thus, the Petrarchan conceits have become worn out and clichés through over use.
  • There is no spontaneity in the Petrarchan conceits as using conceits in poetry was just a fashion, not a voice of their hearts.

Examples of Petrarchan Conceits

Francis Petrarch in his Sonnet 90 compares the brightness of eyes of his beloved to the radiance of the sun. He exaggerates the beauty of eyes of his beloved to such an extent that he considers the brightness of eyes of his beloved to be more radiant than the sun. Look at the following lines taken form his Sonnet 920:

Upon the breeze she spread her golden hair
that in a thousand gentle knots was turned
and the sweet light beyond all radiance burned
in eyes where now that radiance is rare;

and in her face there seemed to come an air
of pity, true or false, that I discerned:
I had love's tinder in my breast unburned,
was it a wonder if it kindled there?

(Sonnet 90 by Francis Petrarch)

Similarly, William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet compares his beloved, Rosaline, to bright smoke, cold fire, sick health. Look at the following lines:


Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!

Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,

Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!

This love feel I, that feel no love in this.

Dost thou not laugh?

(Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare)

© 2014 Muhammad Rafiq


helij on October 13, 2018:

Very good but very boring

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on June 18, 2016:

Thanks Singer4freedom for your encouraging words. I'm glad you liked it.

Ghost from Brazil on June 18, 2016:

i love the fact that you love writing about literature; and i love your posts. you're a talented writer buddy. Keep up the good job! :)

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on November 03, 2014:

Thanks for commenting! You are always welcome to point out mistakes in my writing. Actually, I'm not a native speaker of English language. That's why; there may be some slight mistakes. I would be very very happy if you point out the mistakes and fix them. Regards!

Liberty on November 03, 2014:

Thank you for your thoughtful and stimulating work on petrarchan and metaphysical conceits. Sometimes your English doesn't make sense. If you want, I can make a few changes to this page to make it better?

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on May 01, 2014:

Thanks Billybuc for your continued encouragement! Have a nice time.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 01, 2014:

Your writings are always fascinating and informative.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on May 01, 2014:

Thanks FlourishAnyway for your comments! I am glad you enjoyed it. Remain blessed.

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 01, 2014:

This was a good review for me. I believe I prefer Petrarchan Conceit though it would be a challenge not to choose a cliché.

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