Metaphysical Conceit: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:05 What Is a Metaphysical…
  • 0:56 John Donne's…
  • 1:58 Marvell's Metaphysical Conceit
  • 2:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Summer Stewart

Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

The metaphysical conceit is the bread and butter of metaphysical poetry, which was popular during the seventeenth century. In this lesson, we will learn the main definition of metaphysical conceit and look at examples to fully understand the device.

What Is a Metaphysical Conceit?

During the 17th century, the metaphysical poets such as John Donne, Andrew Marvell, John Cleveland, and Abraham Cowley used a literary device known as the metaphysical conceit. A metaphysical conceit is a complex, and often lofty literary device that makes a far-stretched comparison between a spiritual aspect of a person and a physical thing in the world. Quite simply, a metaphysical conceit is an extended metaphor, which can sometimes last through the entire poem. A metaphysical conceit works to connect the reader's sensory perceptions to abstract ideas. Although the conceit slowly went away after the 17th century, due to being perceived as artifice, some later poets like Emily Dickinson used it. Let's take a look at some metaphysical conceit examples from a few famous poems.

John Donne's Metaphysical Conceit

John Donne is considered the pioneer of metaphysical poetry, and he made heavy use of the metaphysical conceit. For example, in his poem 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,' he compares the souls of a couple to the points on an architect's compass. The two things are unalike on the surface, but Donne works the conceit to bring about comparisons between the two items. Let's take a look at this set of lines:

'If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two,
Thy soul the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.
And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.'

What Donne is saying is that the speaker's lover is akin to the 'fixed foot' of the compass, which always stays in place. The speaker is compared to the part of the compass that moves. Thus the feet of the compass always move together, and the lovers are like the compass because they always move together.

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