Literature

What is a Poetic Conceit?

What is a conceit in literature, especially poetry? A conceit can be defined as an elaborate and fanciful metaphor or analogy, or a witty and ingenious comparison between two things which do not naturally belong to each other. Comparing a woman to a red rose is not really a conceit, because the comparison is so well-established (natural beauty, the suggestion of romance, blushing redness, and so on), so a poetic conceit (the word is related to the word ‘concept’, which means a ‘taking with’ or ‘taking together’) needs to be a little more unusual to qualify for the definition or label. Let’s consider some examples.

First, then, an example from William Shakespeare, from Romeo and Juliet. Romeo has just met Juliet and is smitten by her. The two of them talk (a ‘palmer’ is another word for a pilgrim, by the way):

Romeo:
If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Juliet:
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this,
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

Romeo:
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Juliet:
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

Romeo:
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do.
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Juliet:
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

Romeo:
Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.

In other words, Romeo likens his hand to an unworthy visitor to a sacred shrine (i.e. Juliet). If his hand offends by touching Juliet’s, then his lips are like two blushing (i.e. pinkish-red) pilgrims ready to offer homage to the shrine (i.e. Juliet). Juliet responds by saying Romeo is too harsh on his hand: by holding her hand in his, he is showing respectful devotion as is befitting at a sacred site. Pilgrims, after all, touch the hands of saints (or saints’ statues, anyway). Hand-to-hand like this is a sort of ‘kiss’. Romeo then boldly responds: don’t both saints and pilgrims have lips too (which can also kiss)? Juliet plays it coy, responding by saying that lips are meant for prayer in such circumstances (both saints and pilgrims pray to God). Romeo rises to the challenge, though, and ‘argues’ back: since both lips and hands pray (you put your hands together to pray and your lips form the words), let lips do what hands do, since I’m praying for a kiss off you. Once again, Juliet plays it cool, and tells him that saints don’t move, even when they grant prayers – which is her way of saying, ‘No, you’re the guy: you kiss me’. Romeo obliges. This to-and-fro is like an argument or debate, but it’s also extremely ingenious flirtation on their part. It’s a classic example of a poetic conceit, because it’s not just a crass or straightforward simile (e.g. my hands want to ‘visit’ you, ahahah), but a surprising premise (Romeo’s hand touching Juliet’s is like a visitor to a shrine), which is then developed and unfolded to become more and more clever (hands and lips together bring in prayer; lips suggest kissing; and so on). One may say that it’s a convoluted way of asking for a kiss, but who doesn’t appreciate a bit of effort in the wooing?

It may not look like it, because two characters are speaking the lines in a play, but the fourteen lines of verse dialogue quoted above actually form a Shakespearean sonnet, as we can observe if we put the lines together:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this,
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do.
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.

Clever, eh? But the point is that Shakespeare chose to arrange this exchange between Romeo and Juliet into the sonnet structure because Elizabethan sonneteers were known for their love of conceits. The 14 lines of the sonnet were often used to present an argument, or turn over a topic, using an extended comparison which was supposed to impress us with its intellectual ingenuity as much as it was intended to move us. Consider this especially fine example, from Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (written in the early 1580s):

Nymph of the garden where all beauties be,
Beauties which do in excellency pass
His who till death looked in a watery glass,
Or hers whom nak’d the Trojan boy did see;
Sweet garden-nymph, which keeps the cherry-tree
Whose fruit doth far the Hesperian taste surpass,
Most sweet-fair, most fair-sweet, do not, alas,
From coming near those cherries banish me.
For though, full of desire, empty of wit,
Admitted late by your best-gracèd grace,
I caught at one of them, and hungry bit,
Pardon that fault; once more grant me the place;
And I do swear, even by the same delight,
I will but kiss, I never more will bite.

We discuss this sonnet in more detail here, but right now the salient thing to draw attention to is Sidney’s ingenious use of a conceit. We’re still on the subject of kissing here, you’ll note. To paraphrase the sonnet: ‘Stella, you are like a nymph guarding a beautiful garden, in that you defend your beauty against those who would trespass there. And you are beautiful: more beautiful than Narcissus, who was so attractive he fell in love with his own beauty when gazing upon it in the “watery glass” of the stream; and more beautiful than the Roman goddess Venus, whom the Trojan prince, Paris, saw naked. Your lips are like a beautiful cherry-tree in a garden, and the fruits on that tree are far better than the golden apples of Hesperides in Greek myth. Do not forbid me to come anywhere near those cherry-lips! For though I am lusting stupidly after you, I snatched a kiss of those cherry-lips; please forgive that transgression and let me come close again, and I won’t bite those cherries again: I’ll just kiss you.’ Note again here how Sidney doesn’t merely liken Stella to a beautiful nymph in a garden: he plays with this idea, and his comparison is developed over the course of the sonnet in surprising and elaborate ways which are designed to impress us with his wit and cleverness.

The metaphysical poets often use conceits in their poetry. Let’s take things up a notch and turn from kissing to biting. Sidney said he would refrain from biting, but in his great seductive poem ‘The Flea’, John Donne uses the conceit of the flea biting first him and then his mistress as a justification for their going to bed together: they’ve already been intimately joined through the flea’s sharing of their blood, so what’s stopping them from taking the relatively small step of sharing each other’s bodies for a time?

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.

In other words, Donne says, the flea sucking the both of them doesn’t cause them any sense of shame, and isn’t considered a ‘sin’; so why should going to bed with each other be considered sinful? Donne is using the conceit of the flea to put across an extended argument, which spans the whole poem, that is designed to get the woman into bed with him.

In summary, then, a conceit in poetry is often elaborate, sometimes contrived and even far-fetched, and designed more for intellectual enjoyment than emotional power (although sometimes they can also achieve the latter). George Meredith once described poetry as ‘talking on tiptoe’; we might liken the poetic conceit to a metaphor in stilts, where the metaphor is an extremely accomplished stilt-walker who wants to show off what he can do from up there. But then such a comparison is itself more of a conceit than a straightforward comparison.

3 Comments

  1. Ahh I really like how you use a metaphor to describe an extended metaphor…! Perhaps conceit could also be understood as a metaphor that takes one by surprise… I also wrote a piece attempting to explain conceit, but also comparing it to analogy, simile and metaphor – would be great to hear your views! https://hyperbolit.com/2020/05/02/your-ultimate-guide-to-simile-metaphor-analogy-conceit/

  2. Pingback: What is Metaphysical Poetry? - Interesting Literature

  3. Pingback: A Short Analysis of John Donne's 'The Flea' - Interesting Literature

Leave a Reply