How to ... Identify a Conceit

when you come across one in Literature

Etymology and Definition

The term "conceit" was originally used to refer to an idea or conception.

In poetry, a conceit retains this original sense of intellectual ingenuity (whether applied to the Petrarchan conventions of the Elizabethan period or the elaborate and witty analogies of the writers of Metaphysical verse).


A conceit is usually an elaborate metaphor that compares two seemingly different things. It may be whether a brief metaphor or a metaphor that can be used throughout an entire poem.

English literature has two basic types of conceits:

- the Petrarchan conceit, which compares the subject of the poem extensively and elaborately to an object, such as a rose, a ship, or a garden.

- the metaphysical conceit, which makes complex, surprising, and highly intellectual analogies.


In John Donne's poem "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," he compares the love between two people to a compass. The conceit is extended throughout the poem, with the speaker arguing that the two lovers are like the legs of a compass that move together, even if they are physically apart.

In Andrew Marvell's poem "To His Coy Mistress," he uses the conceit of time as a chariot driver, urging the speaker and his lover to make the most of their time together before it runs out.

In George Herbert's poem "The Altar," he uses the conceit of an altar made of stone to explore the idea of offering oneself as a sacrifice to God.

In Richard Crashaw's poem "The Flaming Heart," he uses the conceit of a burning heart to describe the intense religious devotion of the speaker.

In Henry Vaughan's poem "The Retreat," he uses the conceit of a garden to explore the idea of the soul as a place of spiritual retreat and renewal.

To summarize, a conceit is an elaborate, exaggerated metaphor that compares two incredibly similar things. It is often far-fetched and an extended metaphor that combines two unlike ideas into a single idea, using imagery. When a stanza of a poem contains a conceit, it can be called a conceit itself. In Elizabethan poetry, conceits were comparisons between more closely related objects, such as a rose and love.

Here is a list of vocabulary words:

Conceit: an elaborate and exaggerated metaphor that compares two seemingly different things.

Petrarchan conceit: a type of conceit that extensively and elaborately compares the subject of the poem to an object, such as a rose, a ship, or a garden.

Metaphysical conceit: a type of conceit that makes complex, surprising, and highly intellectual analogies.

Ingenuity: creativity or inventiveness, especially in coming up with new ideas.

Elaborate: intricate and detailed, often involving a lot of effort and attention to detail.

Analogy: a comparison between two things, typically for the purpose of explanation or clarification.

Stanza: a group of lines forming the basic recurring unit in a poem.

Elizabethan period: a period of English history during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, known for its flourishing of literature and the arts.

Far-fetched: unlikely or improbable, often to the point of being unrealistic or exaggerated.

Image: a word or phrase that creates a mental picture or sensory experience in the reader's mind.

Here is a guide to assist you in recognizing conceits in literature.

Follow these steps, and you'll be a pro in identifying them!

You'll need:

  • - A literary text
  • - A basic understanding of metaphor
  • - A willingness to analyze and interpret


  1. Begin by examining the text for any unusual or striking comparisons between seemingly different things.
  2. Look for metaphors that are elaborated on throughout the text.
  3. Consider whether the metaphor is extended throughout the entire poem or only used briefly.
  4. Identify whether the conceit falls into the category of a Petrarchan conceit or a metaphysical conceit.
  5. For Petrarchan conceits, look for an object that the subject of the poem is being compared to in detail.
  6. For metaphysical conceits, look for complex and surprising analogies that require intellectual thought.
  7. Once you have identified the conceit, try to understand the deeper meaning behind it and how it contributes to the overall meaning of the text.
  8. Consider how the use of the conceit impacts the tone and atmosphere of the text.
  9. Look for examples of conceits in classic works of English literature, such as John Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" and Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress."
  10. Keep practicing your analysis and interpretation skills to become more confident in identifying conceits in literature.