Beyond comparison with conceit

An intersection between a simile and metaphor, this literary form captures the reader/listener’s attention by comparing two dissimilar objects – Roopa Banerjee

When someone says, ‘A broken heart is like a damaged clock,’ it seems an unlikely comparison but yet it makes the point. A heart and clock are dissimilar objects, but this ingenious analogy prompts us to compare them and appreciate their similarities. A broken heart is like a broken clock, which can be mended with care. This comparison of dissimilar objects and ideas is defined as conceit.

The objective of this literary form is to arrest the reader/ listener’ s attention by comparing two unrelated objects. It is an intersection between a simile and metaphor and is more effective because it prompts deeper reflection.

Conceits are of two types: Petrarchan and metaphysical.

Petrarchan conceits were prominently used in Renaissance literature of the 14th and 15th centuries, with poets using them in Petrarchan sonnets —14-line poems about love. In these poems, conceits were used to compare lovers with attractive elements of nature. For instance ‘Roses danced in the apple of her cheeks’ penned by Italian poet Petrarch (1304- 1374), after whom this style of conceit is named.

Metaphysical conceits are more complex as they compare a person or her character trait with the world. The best examples are found in the metaphysical poems of John Donne (1572-1631) who in one instance compared lover’s souls with a mundane compass. Although the two are dissimilar to the point of being an absurd comparison, it is true that the arms of a compass can never really part, just like lovers’ souls.

The great bard William Shakespeare used metaphysical conceit lavishly in his writing while shunning, and/or mocking Petrarchan conceit. In his Sonnet 130, Shakespeare writes,

‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red’

While Shakespeare eschewed Petrarchan conceits such as those comparing a lover’s eyes to the sun, he displayed a distinct fondness for metaphysical conceit. In Macbeth, Shakespeare writes,

‘Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath’

Herein, sleep is compared with death as well as a bath. The intent is to draw readers’ attention to the guilt that Macbeth is experiencing and how his conscience disturbs him.

With passing of years, conceits usage became unpopular because they seemed coerced and far-fetched. Metaphysical conceit, in particular, became unpopular as people began to tire of vague and outlandish comparisons which sometimes defied belief and stretched over too many paragraphs.

In the 17th century, poets including Samuel Johnson opined that metaphysical conceit gave the impression of two things being “yoked by violence together”.

Other poets including Emily Dickinson used conceit but stayed away from both Petrarchan as well as metaphysical conceit. Her famous poem ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’ compares a carriage ride with old age moving towards death.

This literary form has crept into daily conversations. If you hear people mouthing phrases such as ‘My life is like a video game now; anyone just plays with it!’ or ‘My heart is like a broken china pot. Even if you apologise, the cracks will always be there’, tip your hat to them for continuing the literary art form of conceit!


Identify the poets and their works where conceit is used in these phrases:

1. His heart in me keeps me and him in one;
My heart in him his thoughts and senses guides:
He loves my heart, for once it was his own;
I cherish his because in me it bides.

2. When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table.

3. Thou counterfeit’st a bark, a sea, a wind;
For still thy eyes, which I may call the sea,
Do ebb and flow with tears; the bark thy body is,
Sailing in this salt flood; the winds, thy sighs.

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