The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Conceit: From the Italian for “idea” or “concept,” a figure of speech involving an elaborate and often surprising comparison between two apparently highly dissimilar things, often in the form of an extended metaphor. Whether it involves strikingly original images or an unusual take on the familiar, the conceit is most notable for its ingenuity. Although the term acquired a derogatory connotation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it is generally used today in a more neutral, descriptive sense and can thus be applied to effective comparisons as well as to overbearing or strained ones.

There are two major types of conceits. The metaphysical conceit frequently uses esoteric objects or references or makes use of commonplace ones, but in an unfamiliar way; it sometimes functions as the controlling image for an entire poem. The Petrarchan conceit (following the example of the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch) typically employs analogy, hyperbole, or oxymoron to portray one or both lovers in an unequal love relationship, exaggerating the beauty and cruelty of the beloved woman while rendering as unjust or pathetic the suffering of the lovestricken man who worships her.

EXAMPLES: Emily Dickinson frequently used conceits, as in her poem “I taste a liquor never brewed” (c. 1860), in which she characterized the elating effect of nature as drunken intoxication. Food writer Michael Pollan made use of a conceit in “A Plant’s-Eye View,” a 2008 TED talk in which he suggested looking at humans and the world from the perspective of plants and animals. Characterizing this idea as a “literary conceit,” he recounted a gardening experience in which, wondering what he and a bumblebee had in common, he realized they were both “disseminating the genes of one species and not another,” he a potato and the bee an apple tree. He originally “thought they were calling the shots,” but then realized they had actually been “seduced” by those plants into spreading their genes.

Metaphysical and Petrarchan conceits can be found, respectively, in John Donne’s “The Flea” (1635), in which a flea is used to represent the sexual union the speaker desires, and the thirtieth sonnet of Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti (1595), in which the poet compared a frustrated lover to fire and the object of his love to ice.