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Conceit

From the Latin term for “concept,” a poetic conceit is an often unconventional, logically complex, or surprising metaphor whose delights are more intellectual than sensual. Petrarchan (after the Italian poet Petrarch) conceits figure heavily in sonnets, and contrast more conventional sensual imagery to describe the experience of love. In Shakespeare’s “Sonnet XCVII: How like a Winter hath my Absence been,” for example, “What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!” laments the lover, though his separation takes place in the fertile days of summer and fall.

Less conventional, more esoteric associations characterize the metaphysical conceit. John Donne and other so-called metaphysical poets used conceits to fuse the sensory and the abstract, trading on the element of surprise and unlikeness to hold the reader’s attention. In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” for instance, John Donne envisions two entwined lovers as the points of a compass. (For more on Donne’s conceits, see Stephen Burt’s Poem Guide on John Donne's “The Sun Rising.”)

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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