Answer: What is a conceit? A conceit is basically a simile, or a comparison between two dissimilar things. In a conceit, the dissimilarity between the things compared is so great that the reader is always fully conscious of it even while having to concede the likeness implied by the poet. Thus Dr. Johnson pointed out that in metaphysical poetry, the most heterogeneous ideas are “yoked by violence together.” The observation is valid even if one does not agree with, the derogatory tone with which Dr. Johnson invests the comment.
Conceits may be brief—like a spark, made by striking two stones together as Helen Gardner remarks; or they may be elaborate and extended. In the latter case, the comparison is not confined to any single point; fresh points of likeness are drawn up and brought to the attention of the reader. The poet sets out to “prove” the likeness. An example is the comparison of the lovers to the two legs of compasses in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. Another clever conceit is in The Fleawhere the flea becomes the marriage bed and marriage temple. The comparison is not obvious but the poet unfolds the likeness logically.
Indeed, Nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparison and allusions. The images are not conventional: they do not reiterate the well-worn poetic devices of the lady’s cheeks looking like roses or her teeth like pearls. The conceits employed by Donne are learned—they display the poet’s thorough knowledge of a wide range of subjects, such as science, mathematics, astronomy, and several others. The conceits thus give the poetry an intellectual tone. However, the intellectual conceits are not in disharmony with the feeling in the poem; they actually add weight and illustrate that feeling giving rise to the impression of what T.S. Eliot called “the unification of sensibility.”
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In a single poem, we may have images drawn from cartography, geography, myth and natural science. A Valediction: of Weeping employs images from a variety of sources. The lover’s tears are like precious coins because they bear the stamp of the beloved (an image drawn from mintage), the tears are “pregnant of thee”—a complex image conveying the impression of the beloved’s reflection in the drop of tear along with the meaning and life given to the tears by the beloved’s reflection in them. Next, the beloved’s tears are compared to the moon which draws up seas to drown the lover in her sphere (the image is drawn from geography). The images, espacially in the context of love, are complex and surprising; but they are not devoid of giving pleasure.
In The Canonization, the lover and the beloved are flies and tapers in themselves. But the poem is remarkable for the use of the Phoenix riddle. The lovers, says Donne, provide a clue to the riddle because they are one, combing both sexes in one entity, continually reviving after being consumed in the fire of their passion.
Reference to sea discoveries, new worlds and the hemispheres of the earth occur in most of Donne’s poems, reflecting contemporary explorations. In The Good Morrowthere are images of sea discoverers travelling to new worlds, maps showing worlds on worlds, and the two hemispheres. In Hymn to God, my Godagain we have images of cosmographers, maps, straits, and the Pacific sea; the language of exploration is used to describe a spiritual condition. Ptolemaic doctrine is also woven into much of Donne’s conceits, as in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. In Good Friday, the soul is compared to a sphere, and Donne treats the metaphor elaborately. Planetary motions are brought into the poem to illustrate feeling.
War and military affairs also provide a source for Donne’s conceits, not only in his love poems, but in his religious poems as well. In Batter my heart, he compares himself to a usurped town. At the same time there is an image drawn from the purification of metals by knocking, blowing and shining it. Later on, imagery usually associated with love is drawn upon to illustrate his spiritual prayer—he wants God to “ravish” him in order that he may be “chaste”. In The Ecstasythere are several images which are startling for their unconventionality. The lovers’ souls are compared to two equal armies confronting and negotiating with each other. Again, love without an outlet in physical expression is like a prince languishing in prison, says Donne.
One can condemn images only if they are grossly out of place or irrelevant in the context in which they are used. In Donne’s poems, very seldom is an image used without relevance. Where it seems startling at first sight, the poet sets out to establish its validity by logical steps. As a result, one feels admiration, an intellectual pleasure and a sense of surprise at the originality and ingenuity of the poet. Donne’s images stimulate one to think. They bring one to an awareness of the new angles from which an experience can be viewed—in The Sun Rising, Donne calls the sun a saucy pedantic wretch and tells it to go and scold late schoolboys and court huntsmen and country ants, and to leave the lovers alone. Hours, days and months are regarded as “rags” of time. The attitude and images may not be conventional but their propriety in the context is undeniable. In Go and Catch a Falling Stara string of unconventional imagery is used to emphasize the view that there is no woman in the world both beautiful and true. But again, one cannot condemn the imagery.
They are, as Helen Gardner asserts, “instruments of definition in an argument or instrument to persuade.” The image is not a piece of decoration; it serves to illustrate or convince. A Valediction: Forbidding Mourningemploys the compasses image elaborately. Donne sustains the comparison through the whole process of drawing a circle, because he is trying to give “proof by analogy” of the lovers’ union. He thus wants to persuade his mistress not to mourn. On a more frivolous level, in The Fleahe makes use of the conceit to persuade his beloved to give in to his entreaties. In The Sun Rising, the poet and his mistress symbolize the whole world and all its rulers. Thus the sun, by shining on their small room, will be warming the whole world. That is a far-fetched conceit, but we cannot deny the logical manner in which Donne has led up to it He illustrates by means of it that love is supreme.
Donne’s use of conceits is ingenious; it is also, in most cases, appropriate. It makes us concede justness while we are admiring its ingenuity, as Helen Gardner says. The poet has something to say which the conceit explicates or something to urge which the conceit helps to forward. “The purpose of an image in Donne’s poetry is to define the emotional experience by an intellectual parallel”, observes Joan Bennett. It has been pointed out by H.J.C. Grierson that Donne’s imagery brings together the opposites of life, all in one breath. But however far-fetched the conceits are, we cannot deplore them; we can merely admire their novelty, realism, justness and range.