Metaphysical conceit: A type of conceit most commonly associated with seventeenth-century metaphysical poetry. The metaphysical conceit involves the use of paradox, imagery drawn from arcane sources, and an original and usually complex comparison between two highly dissimilar things. Its originality often derives from the new or startling use of ordinary or esoteric materials. A single metaphysical conceit may function as the controlling image for an entire poem.

After the seventeenth century, the metaphysical conceit fell into disuse. It regained popularity in the twentieth century, however, thanks to the revival of interest in the metaphysical poets for their intellectualism and psychological analysis. Scottish literary critic H. J. C. Grierson, poet T. S. Eliot, and the New Critics were largely responsible for this revaluation.

EXAMPLE: The following comparison between lovers’ souls and a compass in John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (1640), a poem about lovers parting:

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.