The Conceit

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.


Trace the conceits in the following quotations, and say which topic they come from:

On a round ball
A workeman that hath copies by, can lay
An Europe, Afrique, and an Asia,
And quickly make that, which was nothing, All ... (Donne).

O who shall from this Dungeon, raise
A Soul inslav'd so many wayes?
With bolts of Bones, that fetter'd stands
In Feet; and manacled in Hands.
Here blinded with an Eye; and there
Deaf with the drumming of an Ear ... (Marvell)

Having been a tenant long to a rich Lord,
Not thriving, I resolved to be bold,
And make a suit unto him, to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancel th'old. (Herbert)

In Mathematicks he was greater
Then Tycho Brahe, or Erra Pater:
For he by Geometrick scale
Could take the size of Pots of Ale;
Resolve by Signs and Tangents straight,
If Bread and Butter wanted weight;
And wisely tell what hour o'th day
The Clock does strike, by Algebra. (Samuel Butler)


Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.