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Answer: What is a conceit? A conceit is basically a simile, or a comparison between two dissimilar things. In a conceit, the dissimilarity between the things compared is so great that the reader is always fully conscious of it even while having to concede the likeness implied by the poet. Thus Dr. Johnson pointed out that in metaphysical poetry, the most heterogeneous ideas are “yoked by violence together.” The observation is valid even if one does not agree with, the derogatory tone with which Dr. Johnson invests the comment.

Conceits may be brief—like a spark, made by striking two stones together as Helen Gardner remarks; or they may be elaborate and extended. In the latter case, the comparison is not confined to any single point; fresh points of likeness are drawn up and brought to the attention of the reader. The poet sets out to “prove” the likeness. An example is the comparison of the lovers to the two legs of compasses in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. Another clever conceit is in The Fleawhere the flea becomes the marriage bed and marriage temple. The comparison is not obvious but the poet unfolds the likeness logically.

Indeed, Nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparison and allusions. The images are not conventional: they do not reiterate the well-worn poetic devices of the lady’s cheeks looking like roses or her teeth like pearls. The conceits employed by Donne are learned—they display the poet’s thorough knowledge of a wide range of subjects, such as science, mathematics, astronomy, and several others. The conceits thus give the poetry an intellectual tone. However, the intellectual conceits are not in disharmony with the feeling in the poem; they actually add weight and illustrate that feeling giving rise to the impression of what T.S. Eliot called “the unification of sensibility.”


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