Inappropriate imagery?

One of the main features of Metaphysical poetry is the conceit. It nearly always takes the form of an image or an analogy. The Elizabethans used the conceit, too: it is a clever and unexpected use of images, which makes its point in a surprising, even shocking way. However, the Metaphysical poets also make the image incongruous. That is to say, it does not seem appropriate. An example is bringing together the subjects of love and religion which many people might think should be kept separate. However, the Metaphysical poets mixed the two:

  • The love poetry of Donne, especially, is full of religious images

  • His religious imagery is full of love language

  • He writes much of his religious verse in sonnets, hitherto reserved for love poetry.

Multiple connections

Metaphysical love poetry is also full of images drawn from trade, geography, the new discoveries of the day - whether they were scientific or geographical, and politics. The conceit's force lies not just in the unexpectedness of the image but in how well we are finally able to see the connection and to respond emotionally in the appropriate way.


Extended similes

The Greek poet Homer used a form of imagery that has forever after born his name: the Homeric simile. Basically it is a simile (or a metaphor) that takes on a life of its own, and will extend beyond a short phrase into several long sentences or lines.

Thus, if we go back to ‘My love is like a red, red rose', if the poet then decides to describe this rose in detail, where it is grown, how cultivated, its various attributes, then it becomes an extended simile, and may seem to overwhelm the original object of description, his love.

The analogy

Another extended form of imagery is the analogy. What happens here is that an argument is built up likening A to B point for point. Thus my love is like a rose

  • in her beauty
  • in her fragrance
  • in the complexity of her attire

and so on.

The analogy is more often used in prose, since it is basically a logical device rather than an intuitive or imaginative one. The golden rule is to know where the analogy stops. A can only be like B in so many ways; the rest will be unlikeness.

Similar prose forms of the analogy are the parable and the fable.

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