Metaphysical conceit is a literary term that refers to a poet’s use of somewhat unorthodox language and language construct to describe the quality of an everyday concept. This literary tool, devised in the 17th century, is often used to describe seemingly intangible concepts like an entity’s spiritual and emotional qualities, for example, by using verbose and sometimes paradoxical analogies to objects, like those from the earthly worlds deemed mundane, philosophical, and alchemical in nature. The metaphysical conceit is only one type of “conceit” that is found in literature; a generic conceit can be described as an elaborate metaphor that draws parallels between two dissimilar objects. The Petrarchan conceit is another type, and it is out of this conceit, famously used in love poems of the Elizabethan era, that the concept of metaphysical poetry and conceits as a genre arose. Its use is seen by some as a dramatic tool by which writers relieved themselves from the established, expected, and orthodox conceptual associations common of the era.
The small group of men and women who began using the literary tool in the 17th century were English lyricists thought to be associated and banded together by their desire for more robust and intellectual discourse through prose. Two of the most well-known metaphysical poets who used metaphysical conceit prolifically were John Donne and Andrew Marvel. Donne is considered by some literary researchers to be the one of the chief poetic innovators of metaphysical poetry. His prose was often times seen as being in direct reaction to the accepted Elizabethan form of the day. For example, almost all published English and “civilized” love prose published during Donne’s life was in the sonnet form and Donne used rugged, colloquial language that seemed at times to even mock the sonnet.
An effective metaphysical conceit is noteworthy when a seemingly absurd gesture of parallelism begins to render as startling appropriate and makes the reader look at something in a totally new way. To compare, a poet employing Petrarchan conceit may describe a woman’s eyes as “shining like the stars in the night sky,” while the metaphysical poet, namely Richard Crashaw in this example, described a woman’s eyes as “two walking baths; two weeping motions, portable and compendious oceans.” Another example of metaphysical conceit, which shows how the prose was considered vulgar and even blasphemous by many, is in Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 14," which, among other shocking conceits, contains one that compares God to a rapist and violent invader. Modern poets like T.S. Elliot and Emily Dickenson also employed conceit in their prose.