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John Donne’s poetry often uses “conceits” – that is, comparisons in which the similarities between two things are explained over the course of several lines (or even multiple stanzas) rather than in a quick and simple phrase.
One poem by Donne in which a conceit definitely appears is “Love’s Alchemy.” In this poem, the speaker compares the lofty dreams (but paltry achievements) of alchemists with the lofty dreams (but paltry accomplishments) of lovers:
. . . as no chemic yet th'elixir got,
But glorifies his pregnant pot
If by the way to him befall
Some odoriferous thing, or medicinal,
So, lovers dream a rich and long delight,
But get a winter-seeming summer's night.
In other words, alchemists (that is, chemics) hope to discover the secret formula for creating gold through their elaborate processes. However, they only get (if they are lucky) things that smell good or have some medicinal use. They praise their equipment for these achievements even if the achievements fall far short of what they had originally hoped to attain. In the same way, lovers hope for great pleasures but have to settle for short and disappointing delights.
Donne’s tendency to use conceits exemplifies many of the most important traits of his poetry, including its wittiness, its inventiveness, its wide-ranging intellectual connections, and its reflection of Donne’s ability to see resemblances even in things which seem, at first, to have little in common. Many poets can make quick comparisons, but Donne seems to have had a special talent for exploring all the multifaceted implications of a comparison. Not until Milton and his epic similes in Paradise Lost would another poet possess this kind of talent to the same degree that Donne and some of the other so-called “metaphysical poets” possessed it.
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