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Middle English, from Anglo-French, from conceivre


b : favorable opinion; especially : excessive appreciation of one's own worth or virtue
  • 2: a fancy item or trifle
  • 3a : a fanciful idea
b : an elaborate or strained metaphor
c : use or presence of such conceits in poetry
d : an organizing theme or concept <found his conceit for the film early — Peter Wilkinson>


In literature, a conceit is an extended metaphor with a complex logic that governs a poetic passage or entire poem. By juxtaposing, usurping and manipulating images and ideas in surprising ways, a conceit invites the reader into a more sophisticated understanding of an object of comparison. Extended conceits in English are part of the poetic idiom of Mannerism, during the later sixteenth and early seventeenth century.

History of the term

In the Renaissance, the term (which is related to the word concept) indicated any particularly fanciful expression of wit, and was later used pejoratively of outlandish poetic metaphors.

Recent literary critics have used the term to mean simply the style of extended and heightened metaphor common in the Renaissance and particularly in the 17th century, without any particular indication of value. Within this critical sense, the Princeton Encyclopedia makes a distinction between two kinds of conceits: the Metaphysical conceit and the Petrarchan conceit. In the latter, human experiences are described in terms of an outsized metaphor (a kind of metaphorical hyperbole), like the stock comparison of eyes to the sun, which Shakespeare makes light of in his sonnet 130: "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun."