What is Conceit?

Definition and Examples

John Donne
“A conceit is a concise and arresting metaphor, an implied comparison, which causes us to work hard to retrieve the multi-faceted meanings of individual words and images” John Donne, 1999. Kean Collection/Getty Images

Conceit is a literary and rhetorical term for an elaborate or strained figure of speech, usually a metaphor or simile. Also called a strained metaphor or radical metaphor.

Originally used as a synonym for "idea" or "concept," conceit refers to a particularly fanciful figurative device that's intended to surprise and delight readers by its cleverness and wit. Carried to extremes, a conceit may instead serve to perplex or annoy.


From the Latin, "concept"

Examples and Observations

  • "In general one may say that a juxtaposition of images and comparisons between very dissimilar objects is a common form of conceit in the 17th century and the so-called metaphysical conceit is the kind that most readily springs to mind. A famous example is [John] Donne's "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning." He is comparing two lovers' souls:
    If they be two, they are two so
    As stiff twin compasses are two;
    Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
    To move, but doth, if th' other do.
    And though it in the centre 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.
    By the middle of the 17th c. or soon afterward the concettisti were becoming 'over-conceited' and conceits were devised for the sake of themselves rather than for any particular function. Meretriciousness had set in."
    (J.A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 3rd ed. Basil Blackwell, 1991)
  • "[I]n the case of the conceit . . . the resemblance is so unessential, so obscure, so tenuous, or so overshadowed by more conspicuous dissimilarities, that the reader cannot conceive of any person's ever having seen it as the complete identity of two perceptions. The experience seems quite impossible. The metaphor does not ring true. . . . It is the more or less conscious realization of this fact which gives to the conceit its peculiar flavor of artificiality, and makes it essentially unpleasing to the sensitive reader." (Gertrude Buck, The Metaphor: A Study in the Psychology of Rhetoric. Inland Press, 1899)

A Questionable Conceit

  • "[I]t should be said that nothing objectionable appears in Heartbreak before page 10. But then: 'Here she is at her kitchen table, fingering a jigsaw of thalidomide ginger, thinking about the arthritis in her hands.'

"The conceit doesn't belong to the character thinking about arthritis, nor does it say anything about her state of mind. It belongs to an author's voice and appears on the page only to demonstrate the quickness, the aptness of its own comparison: random stumps of root like the limbs of a poisoned child. Nothing triggers it beyond the act of seeing; nothing rises out of the tiny shock of tasteless recognition to justify its presence. It might be the first line of a riddle or a bad, bleak joke without a punchline: a reflex gag. 'How is a piece of ginger like...'" (James Purson, "Heartbreak by Craig Raine." The Guardian, July 3, 2010)

The Petrarchan Conceit

"The Petrarchan Conceit is a type of figure used in love poems that had been novel and effective in the Italian poet Petrarch but became hackneyed in some of his imitators among the Elizabethan sonneteers. The figure consists of detailed, ingenious, and often exaggerated comparisons applied to the disdainful mistress, as cold and cruel as she is beautiful, and to the distress and despair of her worshipful lover. . . .

  • "Shakespeare (who at times employed this type of conceit himself) parodied some standard comparisons by Petrarch sonneteers in his Sonnet 130, beginning:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head."

(M.H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 8th ed. Wadsworth, 2005)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What is Conceit?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-conceit-metaphor-1689779. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What is Conceit? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-conceit-metaphor-1689779 Nordquist, Richard. "What is Conceit?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-conceit-metaphor-1689779 (accessed June 3, 2023).