A conceit is a type of extended metaphor used in literature, different from a regular metaphor in that the difference between the conceit and its intended meaning is extreme. The success of the conceit depends on the cleverness by which the comparison is made. Poets, John Donne and Emily Dickinson to name two, use them quite often with varying degrees of success. Samuel Johnson criticised them by saying that "the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together." Conceits may be brief or go on for pages.

One cannot just compare apples and oranges and have it be a conceit. Wit and cleverness are essential elements. To be successful, the reader must not be forced to expend too much intellectual effort to make the connection. Done well, they are useful for making complex or abstract ideas more intelligible. Enough talk. How about an example?

In the New Testament, in the Gospel of John, we find this verse:

I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. (John 6, 51)
In this example, we see that bread is used as a conceit to show that Jesus provides a spiritual nourishment essential to the soul's eternal life, just as earthly bread is essential to the body's mortal life. It is obvious that bread and Jesus Christ are different things, but the comparison drives home the point that through him the spiritual life is sustained.

Sources:
encyclopedia.com
http://www.wilby.de/lit/conceit.htm
Gospel of John

Con*ceit" (?), n. [Through French, fr. L. conceptus a conceiving, conception, fr. concipere to conceive: cf. OF. p. p. nom. conciez conceived. See Conceive, and cf. Concept, Deceit.]

1.

That which is conceived, imagined, or formed in the mind; idea; thought; image; conception.

In laughing, there ever procedeth a conceit of somewhat ridiculous. Bacon.

A man wise in his own conceit. Prov. xxvi. 12.

2.

Faculty of conceiving ideas; mental faculty; apprehension; as, a man of quick conceit.

[Obs.]

How often, alas! did her eyes say unto me that they loved! and yet I, not looking for such a matter, had not my conceit open to understand them. Sir P. Sidney.

3.

Quickness of apprehension; active imagination; lively fancy.

His wit's as thick as Tewksbury mustard; there's more conceit in him than is in a mallet. Shak.

4.

A fanciful, odd, or extravagant notion; a quant fancy; an unnatural or affected conception; a witty thought or turn of expression; a fanciful device; a whim; a quip.

On his way to the gibbet, a freak took him in the head to go off with a conceit. L'Estrange.

Some to conceit alone their works confine, And glittering thoughts struck out at every line. Pope.

Tasso is full of conceits . . . which are not only below the dignity of heroic verse but contrary to its nature. Dryden.

5.

An overweening idea of one's self; vanity.

Plumed with conceit he calls aloud. Cotton.

6.

Design; pattern.

[Obs.]

Shak.

In conceit with, in accord with; agreeing or conforming. -- Out of conceit with, not having a favorable opinion of; not pleased with; as, a man is out of conceit with his dress. -- To put [one] out conceit with, to make one indifferent to a thing, or in a degree displeased with it.

 

© Webster 1913.


Con*ceit" (?), v. t.

To conceive; to imagine.

[Archaic]

The strong, by conceiting themselves weak, are therebly rendered as inactive . . . as if they really were so. South.

One of two bad ways you must conceit me, Either a coward or a flatterer. Shak.

 

© Webster 1913.


Con*ceit", v. i.

To form an idea; to think.

[Obs.]

Those whose . . . vulgar apprehensions conceit but low of matrimonial purposes. Milton.

 

© Webster 1913.

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