What Johnson called metaphysical wit is most characteristically expressed in the form of the metaphysical conceit. In modern usage, the literary term “conceit” generally refers to an extended comparison, though as Joseph Anthony Mazzeo pointed out, the word “conceit” could be used in the seventeenth century as a simple synonym for “metaphor.” Typical conceits before the Metaphysicals treated clichéd comparisons, such as love as a storm at sea in Rima 189 of Petrarch (1304-1374). The specific poem was well known in the sixteenth century through translations by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Edmund Spenser.
Such a comparison stated baldly or succinctly would just be a simile, “love is like a storm at sea,” or, if expressed more directly a metaphor, “love is a storm at sea.” However, Petrarch’s figure becomes a conceit by expanding the comparison and multiplying details: the lover’s sighs are the winds, his tears the rain, the lady’s scorn for him the dark clouds, and so on. Petrarch’s conceit is not, however, metaphysical. The conceits of the Metaphysical poets differ from the conceits of Petrarch and his many English imitators of the sixteenth century by doing just what Johnson scorned: making comparisons that were novel rather than traditional.
The most-discussed metaphysical conceit, Donne’s comparison in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” of a loving husband and wife as two legs of a compass, is a convenient...
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