What Is Conceit?

A conceit is a type of metaphor, a comparison of two unlike things for the purpose of creating an extended meaning. For instance, “Life is a bowl of cherries” is a conceit that tells us several things about the nature of life. It is sweet and delicious, but it doesn’t last forever. The comparison, which at first seems surprising or out of place, adds depth to both literature and ordinary conversation, and at the same time, a conceit helps to boil down an idea that may be fairly complex into a simple turn of phrase.

How Do You Identify Conceit in Writing?

In literature, there are two main types of conceit, the metaphysical and the Petrarchan.

  • A Petrarchan conceit, named for the medieval Italian poet Petrarch, is an exaggerated comparison between the beloved and the natural world. “Her eyes are heavenly stars” is a Petrarchan conceit.
  • A Metaphysical conceit, made popular by the seventeenth-century poet John Donne, is a comparison between unlike things designed to bring forth the metaphorical meaning of the poem. At the beginning of “The Sun Rising,” Donne calls the sun a “busy old fool” for ending his night with his lover, which begins an extended discussion of the relationship between love and time.

Examples of Conceit

Conceit Example 1. In “Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich creates a conceit that compares a ruined love affair with the exploration of an underwater shipwreck.

Conceit Example 2. There is a famous conceit at the heart of the film Forrest Gump: Life is like a box of chocolates. The entire movie explores this idea that “you never know what you’re going to get” by having Gump experience many different aspects of American society over a generation.

Conceit Example 3. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, the title of Carson McCuller’s best known novel, explores the concept of unrequited love.

Conceit Example 4. In John Donne’s poem, “The Flea,” the conceit compares a flea, which has sucked the blood from both a man and his lover, to a marriage bed.

Conceit Example 5. Popular music often uses conceits. For instance, in “Firework,” Katy Perry uses several conceits; life is like a “plastic bag,” a “house of cards” and “fireworks.”


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