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Aside from its common usage, signifying "excessive pride" (i.e. the conception of Self, the excessive pride as a result of having an inflated conception of self-worth), in literary terms, a conceit[1] is an extended metaphor with a complex logic that governs a poetic passage or entire poem. By juxtaposing, usurping and manipulating images and ideas in surprising ways, a conceit invites the reader into a more sophisticated understanding of an object of comparison. Extended conceits in English are part of the poetic idiom of Mannerism, during the later sixteenth and early seventeenth century.

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Metaphysical conceit

In English literature the term is generally associated with the 17th century metaphysical poets, an extension of contemporary usage. In the metaphysical conceit, metaphors have a much more purely conceptual, and thus tenuous, relationship between the things being compared. Helen Gardner[2] observed that "a conceit is a comparison whose ingenuity is more striking than its justness" and that "a comparison becomes a conceit when we are made to concede likeness while being strongly conscious of unlikeness." An example of the latter would be George Herbert's "Praise (3)," in which the generosity of God is compared to a bottle which ("As we have boxes for the poor") will take in an infinite amount of the speaker's tears.

An often-cited example of the metaphysical conceit is the metaphor from John Donne's "The Flea," in which a flea that bites both the speaker and his lover becomes a conceit arguing that his lover has no reason to deny him sexually, although they are not married:

   Oh stay! three lives in one flea spare
Where we almost, yea more than married are.
   This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage-bed and marriage-temple is.

When Sir Philip Sidney begins a sonnet with the conventional idiomatic expression "My true-love hath my heart and I have his", but then takes the metaphor literally and teases out a number of literal possibilities and extravagantly playful conceptions in the exchange of hearts, the result is a fully-formed conceit.

Petrarchan conceit

The Petrarchan conceit, used in love poetry, exploits a particular set of images for comparisons with the despairing lover and his unpitying but idolized mistress. For instance, the lover is a ship on a stormy sea, and his mistress "a cloud of dark disdain"; or else the lady is a sun whose beauty and virtue shine on her lover from a distance.

The paradoxical pain and pleasure of lovesickness is often described using oxymoron, for instance uniting peace and war, burning and freezing, and so forth. But images which were novel in the sonnets of Petrarch became clichés in the poetry of later imitators. Romeo uses hackneyed Petrarchan conceits when describing his love for Rosaline as "bright smoke, cold fire, sick health".

History of the term

In the Renaissance, the term (which is related to the word concept) indicated any particularly fanciful expression of wit, and was later used pejoratively of outlandish poetic metaphors.

Recent literary critics have used the term to mean simply the style of extended and heightened metaphor common in the Renaissance and particularly in the 17th century, without any particular indication of value. Within this critical sense, the Princeton Encyclopedia makes a distinction between two kinds of conceits: the Metaphysical conceit, described above, and the Petrarchan conceit. In the latter, human experiences are described in terms of an outsized metaphor (a kind of metaphorical hyperbole), like the stock comparison of eyes to the sun, which Shakespeare makes light of in his sonnet 130: "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun."

Other uses

For later literature and film, the term is sometimes used to refer to a device that stretches reality to take advantage of what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called the "willing suspension of disbelief." This usage is seldom seen in formal literary criticism.

An example from popular culture is the way many cartoons feature animals that can speak to each other, and in many cases can understand human speech, but humans cannot understand the speech of animals. This conceit is seen, and sometimes exploited for plot purposes, in such films as Over The Hedge, the Balto series, and Brother Bear.

Notes

  1. ^ Definition of conceit from Wiktionary
  2. ^ Helen Gardner, The Metaphysical Poets (Oxford University Press), 1961, "Introduction" p. xxiii.

References

  • Lakoff, George and Mark Turner. More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. Princeton, NJ: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
  • Preminger, Alex and T.V.F. Brogan. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

External links

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Quotes

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Conceit can mean an over-high esteem of oneself, something conceived (especially, a novel or fanciful idea), or, in literature and poetry, a device of analogy consisting of an extended metaphor.

Sourced

  • Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit? There is more hope of a fool than of him.
  • Conceit is the most contemptible and one of the most odious qualities in the world. It is vanity driven from all other shifts, and forced to appeal to itself for admiration.
    • William Hazlitt, Characteristics, in the manner of Rochefoucauld's Maxims (1823) No. 110
  • Conceit is to nature what paint is to beauty; it is not only needless, but impairs what it would improve.
  • We go and fancy that everybody is thinking of us. But he is not: he is like us; he is thinking of himself.
  • Nature in her whole drama never drew such a part; she has sometimes made a fool, but a coxcomb is always of a man's own making…

Unsourced

  • The certain way to be cheated is to fancy one's self more cunning than others.
    • Charron
  • Be very slow to believe that you are wiser than all others; it is a fatal but common error. Where one has been saved by a true estimation of another's weakness, thousands have been destroyed by a false appreciation of their own strength.
    • Colton
  • A man who is proud of small things shows that small things are great to him.
    • Madame de Girardin
  • Self-made men are most always apt to be a little too proud of the job.
    • H. W. Shaw
  • He who gives himself airs of importance exhibits the credentials of impotence.
  • The more any one speaks of himself, the less he likes to hear another talked of.

External links

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