What is a conceit?
One of the stock devices used by a poet is imagery. Images which are just and natural are employed by all the poets; conceits, however, are unusual and fantastic similes. Comparisons indicate similarity in dissimilar objects, but conceits emphasise the degree of heterogeneity—the strong element of unlikeness and the violence or strain used in bringing together dissimilar objects. There is more of the incongruity rather than the similarity in a conceit. Comparing the cheeks of the beloved to a rose is an image, while comparing the cheeks of the lover to a rose because they have lost their colour and are bleeding from thorns, (and the consequent gloom) is a conceit.
The nature of Donne’s conceits
Donne’s conceits are metaphysical because they are taken from the extended world of knowledge, from science, astrology, astronomy, scholastic philosophy, fine arts, etc. They are scholarly and learned conceits and much too far-fetched and obscure. Moreover, they are elaborate. The well-known conceit of the two lovers being compared to a pair of compasses, where one leg remains fixed at the centre and the other rotates is an elaborate and extended conceit. Similarly, the comparison of the flea to a bridal bed or a marriage temple is another example of an elaborate conceit. In The Sun Rising, the beloved’s bed is the universe and the walls are the sphere.
Secondly, there is a sort of tension or magnetic force holding together the apparently dissimilar objects in a conceit. This tension holds the two together, while keeping their identities separate. This violent yoking together is done by the metaphysical element. In this connection A.J. Smith writes: “Metaphysical problems rise out of pairs of opposites that behave almost exactly as do the elements of a metaphysical conceit. Take multiplicity and unity or reality, for (example: the multiplicity submits to the unity for its coherence, and at the same time preserves itself as multiplicity: while the unity, without ceasing to be unify, receives from multiplicity its significance. The two support and complete, and at the same time deny, each other.”
Thirdly, Donne’s conceit is not a decoration, a piece of super-imposed machinery or setting but an organic part of the poetic process. While the Elizabethan conceit is traditional and ornamental, the metaphysical conceit is basic and structural. It is a part of the process of amplification and argument. It plays a vital role in proving the thesis of the poet. In this connection Helen Gardner writes: “In a metaphysical poem the conceits are instruments of definition in an argument or instruments to persuade. The poet has something to say which the conceit explicates or something to urge which the conceit helps to forward. It can only do this if it is used with an appearance of logical rigour, the analogy being shown to hold by a process not unlike Euclid’s super imposition of triangles. I have said that the first impression a conceit makes is of ingenuity rather than of justice: the metaphysical conceit aims at making us concede justness while we are admiring its ingenuity.”
The separation of the husband and wife in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, is like the movement of one leg of the compass while the other leg is fixed at the centre. The drawing of the circle to indicate the journey of the poet to a foreign country and the stay of his wife at London like the fixed side of the compass is basic to the theme of the poem. The rotating side of the compass must return to the base to join the other side ultimately and as such there is no need to mourn.
Mixture of thought and feeling
Donne blends thought and feeling in his conceits to achieve the ‘unification of sensibility. The situation is emotional, almost explosive while its treatment and descriptions are wholly intellectual. Mark the description of the cheeks of the beloved in The Second Anniversary.
Her sure and eloquent blood
Spoke in her checks and so distinctly wrought,
That one might almost say her body thought.
Spoke in her checks and so distinctly wrought,
That one might almost say her body thought.
Here the body (a physical thing) is connected with thought. In this connection T.S. Eliot writes: “The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth, possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience...simple, artificial, difficult, or, fantastic....”
Donne does not draw on the source-material of Elizabethan poets for his conceits. His originality prevented him from following the Petrarchan or pastoral tradition. He sought conceits from the rich and varied experiences of his own life and the widening horizons of knowledge and the world around him. Joan Bennett writes in this connection: “His images are drawn from his own interests, so that he is always illustrating one fact of his experience by another. Everything that played an important part in his life or left its mark upon his mind occurs in the poetry, not as subject-matter but as imagery. His subject-matter was, as has been seen, confined almost entirely to various aspects of love and of religion; but his imagery reveals the width of his intellectual exploration”. Moreover, Donne had tasted life to the finger-tips and had lived en the continent for quite some time. This widened the scope of his knowledge and as such he enriched his poetry with conceits drawn from his vast experience of men and manners.
(i) Conceits reflecting contemporary developments
John Donne made various references to alchemy for his conceits. He utilisea contemporary chemical ideas indiscriminately. He made use of the latest scientific theories and current superstitions for ornamentation of his poems. He frequently utilised geographical images which reflected increasing knowledge of the world’s surface during his time. All these subjects were his delight; all such subjects occurred to him in his mood of poetic creation. For example, his poems A Valediction: Of the Book, The First Anniversary, Hymn to God, God in My Sickness, The Good Morrow, and An Anatomy of the World reflect his craziness for using the contemporary ideas pertaining to geography.
(ii) Imagery drawn from everyday trade and commerce
Donne was a realist. This fact becomes evident when we see images drawn from the world of everyday commerce, trade and industry. Red-path asserts: “A firm and even a stern realism is often imparted to the poems by the references to war and military affairs, death, law, politics, medicine, fire and heat, business, the human body, and many of the features of home life; while, on the other hand, a certain lofty” strain is often provided by the references to scholastic doctrine, astronomy, religion, and learning; and a note of strangeness is injected by the references to alchemy, astrology and superstition.”
(iii) Imagery drawn from disease and death
Donne himself experienced disease and poverty. So, he had an urge to learn medicine. His knowledge of medicine enabled him to draw images from disease, dissolution and death. A critic asserts: “Such imagery has aroused disgust in certain quarters and has laid Donne open to the charge of morbidness. In this connection it must be remembered that Donne was writing in an age when Death lurked round the corner, and plague, famine and violence were an everyday occurrence.”
Function of Donne’s imagery and conceits
Donne’s originality is reflected when he makes use of images and conceits drawn from various sources and spheres. In this respect, he is different from the other poets. T.S. Eliot appreciated him highly because of this remarkable trait. Donne achieved unification of sensibility i.e. fusion of thought and feeling very successfully and artistically. His reader is capable of simultaneously sharing an emotion, enjoying a joke feeling and thinking at the same time. Take for example The Sun Rising where the reader moves from the mood of the first stanza to that of the last. Another poem, The Relic indicates the sardonic mood which the reader shares. So the function of his image and conceit is multifarious. Coleridge defines the function of poetry: “Judgement ever awake and steady, self-possession with enthusiasm, and feeling profound or vehement.” This view of Coleridge is applicable to John Donne’s imagery and conceits. The great critic, Joan Bennett, has compared the poetry of John Donne with that of Keats. Keats’s sensuous impression is identified with the thing he wants to express. On the other hand, Donne identifies his intellectual analogy with his emotion. Thus, “the purpose of an image in his poetry is to define the emotional experience by an intellectual parallel.”
Donne’s images and conceits, not isolated from the context
Although Donne’s conceit or image is rugged, coarse and far-fetched, yet it imparts a sense of pleasure and exaltation as it has an astonishing link with the whole poem. In other words, an image cannot be detached from its context. It emerges out of a certain situation of high emotional tension. His conceits or images outgrow from the given dramatic movement to indicate the relationship of the characters and that of ideas. Same is the case with the conceits of Shakespeare, a born dramatist of his period. John Donne’s conceits or images reveal an organic growth, profuseness and proliferation which get sustenance from complexity, intensity and profundity of the given experience. Thus a particular conceit of Donne has a significance in the context of the whole poem.
Obscure and complex nature of Donne’s conceit
Donne’s conceit or image is highly obscure, difficult and complex. It makes a considerable demand on the reader to understand it. According to J.C. Grierson, it brings together the opposites of life i.e., body and soul, earth and heaven, the bed of lovers and the universe, life and death, microcosm and macrocosm in one breath. Readers, further, undergo difficulty because of the medieval learning of Donne. Although these images or conceits were popular in his age, yet readers of the present age are not well conversant with them. Donne has a fertile mind. He encloses within a little space huge conceits. His mind moves very smoothly and with great agility from one dissimilar concept to another. Readers are confused and bewildered because of this fact. They should also possess equal agility and profound understanding to follow him. A student of ordinary calibre cannot follow Donne’s far-fetched objects and concepts which are juxtaposed in his conceits. In this manner, John Donne puts his readers to great strain and demands considerable efforts from them to understand him because of the complex nature of his imagery.