The Metaphorical and the Conceit (Glossary)

So what are some of the more commonly used metaphorical devices in literature? I will attempt to list a few of these devices here. These definitions are in a form related to the conceit under the term of Figurative Speech or Figures of Speech, which is commonly used in reference books of various kinds.

Besides the more obvious metaphorical devices, which are: the simile, and the simple metaphor of analogy, along with the use of ambiguity, the paradoxical, the oxymoron, and the power of suggestion–including exaggeration and distortion, all of which will be named and defined here to some extent; we may also enter into the more complex structures called the conceit, antithesis, the allegorical, the epic simile and other more diverse forms — the extended forms of metaphor. There are literally hundreds of different literary forms of figurative speech when speaking of the metaphorical in poetic presentation. 

At this point I would like to list some of the more common metaphorical devices. For many it will be a new reference list; for others it will be a review. Use it how you will for the betterment of your individual writing. 

A Glossary Of Metaphorical Devices:


1. a. A literary, dramatic, or pictorial device in which characters and events stand for abstract ideas, principles, or forces, so that the literal sense has or suggests a parallel, deeper symbolic sense. 
b. A story, picture, or play in which this device is used. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick are allegories.

A symbolic representation

An allegory undertakes to make a doctrine or thesis interesting and persuasive by converting it into a narrative in which the agents, and sometimes the setting as well, represent general concepts, moral qualities, or other abstractions. I will mention the (fable and the parable) here as well but their forms differ slightly. But are other possibilities for expanded metaphorical use. An allegory is an extended metaphor that has an apparent meaning, but a more significant one remains to be disclosed. An allegory is common in poetic prose, as well as in various types of poetry. A wide background in literature, myth, history, and various religions is often required to recognize many allegorical passages.


1. Open to more than one interpretation.
2. Doubtful or uncertain.
3. William Empson’s 7 types of poetic ambiguity
(1. When a detail is effective in several ways at once
(2. When two or more alternative meanings are fully resolved into one
(3. When two apparently unconnected meanings are given simultaneously
(4. When the alternative meanings combine to make clear a complicated state of mind in the author
(5. A fortunate confusion, As when the author is discovering his idea in the act of writing…or not holding it all in mind at once
(6. When what is said is contradictory or irrelevant and the reader is forced to invent interpretations
(7. One of full contradiction, marking a division in the author’s mind
4. The equivocal senses; That which sustains intricacy, intimacy, delicacy and compression of thought and vision


1.a. Similarity in some respects between things that are otherwise dissimilar.
b. A comparison based on such similarity.


1. Direct contrast; opposition.
2. The direct or exact opposite.
3. a. A figure of speech in which sharply contrasting ideas are juxtaposed in a balanced or parallel phrase or grammatical structure, as in.
b. The second and contrasting part of such a juxtaposition.
4. The second stage of the Hegelian dialectic process, representing the opposite of the thesis.

The ancient Chinese primarily used this metaphorical form exclusively called antithesis in their regulated form. Two short diametric or opposing lines that are parallel in structure. Antithesis is a figure of speech in which sharply contrasting ideas are juxtaposed in balanced or parallel phrases or a grammatical structure. A short explanation below:

Chinese is a uni-syllabic language, and there is a natural tendency in Chinese towards antithesis. For instance, instead of saying “size”, one says “big-smallness” and instead of “landscape” one says “mountain-waters”. Such expressions reveal a dualistic and relativistic way of thinking. Moreover monosyllabic words and disyllabic compounds, which constitute the bulk of the language, lend themselves easily to antithesis. For example “river” and “mountain” form an antithesis; so do “flower” and “bird”. These two antithetical pairs can then be used to form another antithesis: “River and mountain” in contrast to “flower and bird”. It is easy to form a tetrasyllabic phrase with two antithetical disyllabic compounds: “red flower and green leaves”, “blue sky and white sun”. Such being the case with the language itself, it is inevitable that antithesis should play an important part in Chinese poetry, and be metaphorical in content.

In regulated Verse, antithesis is demanded by the verification. The four middle lines of an eight-line poem in Regulated Verse should form two antithetical couplets, each syllable in the fist line should contrast in tone with the corresponding syllable in the next line. At the same time, the contrasted words should be of the same grammatical category: noun against noun, verb against verb, etc. This is not always strictly observed, especially among earlier writers of Regulated Verse. i.e., Tu Fu’s (Cicada’s cries gather in the ancient temple, A bird’s shadow crosses the cold pond.) A Statement On Chinese Poetry—Taken from the art of Chinese poetry by James J. Y. Liu


The direct address of an absent or imaginary person or of a personified abstraction, especially as a digression in the course of a speech or composition.

It is a sudden shift to direct address, either to an absent person or to an abstract or inanimate entity. If this address is to a god or muse to assist the poet in his composition, it is called an Invocation. Also a Rhetorical Question is a question asked, not to evoke a reply, but to achieve a rhetorical emphasis stronger than a direct statement.


is the use of phrases which are syntactically parallel but with their elements reversed, as in these lines from Pope, in which the first the verb first precedes, and then follows, the adverbial phrase:

Works without show, and without pomp presides.
A fop their passion, but their prize a sot.

The Conceit

An elaborate or exaggerated comparison — (metaphor.) An ingenious image, sometimes fancifully elaborated to the point of absurdity, And beyond this a conceit is just an extended metaphor of several various kinds that generally tends to be witty or intellectual in its demeanor but is not limited to these two types of presentations. It is a rather broad term in that sense. Covering every kind of extended form from simile and metaphor to paradox and metonymy. But it is always and extended and elaborate presentation beyond just a simple metaphor. The metaphysical conceit was more intellectualized, many-leveled comparison giving a strong sense of the poet’s ingenuity in overcoming obstacles.

An extended, fanciful comparison between two apparently dissimilar objects. In “Huswifery,” Edward Taylor compares himself to a spinning wheel upon which God weaves.
from (A Glossary of Literary Terms) By M. H. Abrams
Originally meaning simply an idea or image, “conceit” has come to be applied to a figure of speech which establishes a striking parallel–usually an elaborate parallel– between two apparently dissimilar things or situations 
1. see (Simile and Metaphor) The term was once derogatory, but it is now best employed as a neutral way of identifying a literary device. Two species of conceits are often distinguished. Petrarchan conceits are a type of figure used in love poems, which had been novel enough in their original employment by the Italian poet Petrarch but tended to become conventional and hackneyed in his imitators, the Elizabethan sonneteers. They consisted of elaborate and hyperbolical comparisons applied to the disdainful mistress, as cruel as she was beautiful, and to the distresses of the worshipful lover 
2. see (Hyperbole) In one sonnet, for example, Sir Thomas Wyatt circumstantially compares the lover’s state to a ship laboring in a storm, and in another he parallels it in detail to the landscape of the Alps. A third sonnet begins with one of the most familiar of Petrarchan conceits, describing the fever and chills of the alternately hopeful and despairing lover: 
3. see (Oxymoron)

I find no peace; and all my war is done;
I fear and hope; I burn, and freeze in ice.

Shakespeare smiled at some of the standard objects pressed into service by Petrarchan writers to describe a lady’s beauty, in his sonnet beginning:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

The metaphysical conceit is a characteristic kind of figure in the poems of John Donne and his followers. 
4. see (Metaphysical Poets) It was described by Dr. Johnson, in a famous passage, as “a kind of discordia concurs, a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.” The metaphysical poets exploited all knowledge–commonplace or esoteric, practical or philosophical, true or fabulous–for these figures; and their comparisons were usually novel, witty, and at their best, (startlingly successful). In sharp contrast to conventional Patrarchism, for example, is Donne’s “the canonization,” with its extraordinarily inventive sequence of comparisons for the situation of two lovers, moving, as the poetic argument develops, from the area of commerce and business through various real and mythical birds and diverse forms of historical memorials, to a climax which triumphantly equates the acts and status of physical lovers with the ascetic life and heavenly destination of unworldly saints. The most famous sustained conceit is Donne’s comparison of the continuing unity of his soul with his lady’s, in spite of their physical parting, to the action of a draughts man’s compass. The passage is in “A valediction Forbidding Mourning,” and begins:

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth if the other do . . . . 

Equally well known, but this time as an instance of the grotesque and chilly ingenuity of the unsuccessful metaphysical conceit, is Richard Crashaw’s description, in “saint Mary Magdalene,” of the tearful eyes of the repentant Mary Magdalene as

…two faithful fountains
Two waling baths, two weeping motions,
Portable and compendious oceans.

More On The Conceit:
Another note on the extended metaphor of the conceit. This excerpt from another source: (The Many Worlds of Poetry).

When the extended simile or metaphor becomes quite elaborated in a witty or intellectual way, it is called a conceit. At a high level of intensity, a metaphor goes beyond comparison and succeeds in creating an aura of transformation. An example of this is the following passage from Romeo and Juliet. Romeo, standing unseen for the moment beneath Juliet’s window, has been smitten by the beauty of her eyes. The comparison of the lady’s eyes to stars was an old one even in Shakespeare’s day, but what happens in these lines goes beyond the ordinary smile or metaphor:

Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight cloth a lamp: her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
(II, ii)

The passage has some of the elaborateness of a conceit, but the main element here is not wit or intellect, as in a conceit, but passion. The imagination is made to leap across the gap between the image of eyes and the image of stars in such a way that a new entity come into being: the eyes as stars. The line in which the transformation culminates is “would through the airy region stream so bright,” It is with language of such energy and radiance that the poet’s “Imagination bodies forth/ The forms of thing unknown …

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven:
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

(Midsummer Night’s Dream: V, i)

Connotation vs denotation

Any meaning suggested by the sound or the look of a word or associated, however remotely, with its usual specific meaning. The connotations of language thicken its ambiguities and also give it great emotional weight, so that they may enrich its value for the poet. Denotation is the accepted meaning of a word. See also ambiguity, symbol and verbal texture.


1. The act of forming couples.
2. A device that links or connects.
3. Two items of the same kind; a pair.
4. Something that joins or connects two things together; a link.


Figures of Thought

1. The creative imagination; unrestrained fancy.
2. Something, such as an invention, that is a creation of the fancy.
3. A capricious or fantastic idea; a conceit.
4. a. Fiction characterized by highly fanciful or supernatural elements.
b. An example of such fiction.
5. An imagined event or sequence of mental images, such as a daydream, usually fulfilling a wish or psychological need.
6. Music. See fantasia.
7. A coined phrase especially with a questionable authority and not intended to be used logically.
8. Obsolete. A hallucination. To imagine; visualize.

That in which the departure from the standard is primarily in the arrangement or rhetorical function of the words, without radical change in their literal meaning. i.e. a zeugma


A figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect, as in I could sleep for a year or This book weighs a ton. Hyperbole is an extravagant exaggeration of fact, used either for serious or comic effect: “Her eyes opened wide as saucers.” for more poetic examples, see Marvell’s description of his “vegetable love” in “To His Coy Mistress,” or Ben Jonson’s compliments to his lady in “Drink to me only with thine eyes.” the “tall tale” and “tall talk” of the American Southwest is a form of comic hyperbole. There was the cowboy in an Eastern restaurant who ordered a steak well done. “do you call this well done?” he roared at the waitress. “I’ve seen critters hurt worse than that get well!”


1. A set of mental pictures or images.
2. a. The use of vivid or figurative language to represent objects, actions, or ideas. 
b. The use of expressive or evocative images in art, literature, or music. c. A group or body of related images, as in a painting or poem.
3. a. Representative images, particularly icons. 
b. The art of making such images.

This term is one of the most common in modern criticism. Its application range all the way from “mental pictures” to the total meaning presented by a poem: C. Day Lewis, for example has said that a poem is “an image composed from a multiplicity of images.” The term is used to signify descriptive passages in poetry, especially if the descriptions are vivid and particularized. It should not be taken to imply a visual reproduction of the scene described; the description may be of any sensations, not only visual ones. The term is also used to signify figurative language, especially metaphors and similes, in this sense, it is a clue to poetic meaning, structure, and effect.


1. a. The formation of a mental image of something that is neither perceived as real nor present to the senses. 
b. The mental image so formed. c. The ability or tendency to form such images.
2. The ability to confront and deal with reality by using the creative power of the mind; resourcefulness.


1. a. The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning. 
b. An expression or utterance marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning. 
c. A literary style employing such contrasts for humorous or rhetorical effect.
2. a. Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.
b. An occurrence, a result, or a circumstance notable for such incongruity.
3. Dramatic irony.
4. Socratic irony.

“Rhetorical” or “verbal irony” is a mode of speech in which the implied attitudes or evaluation are opposed to those literally expressed


1. Perception; understanding.
2. a. Range of vision.
b. View; sight.
3. To know (a person or thing).
4. To recognize.
To have knowledge or an understanding of. A figurative stock phrase used in Norse and Anglo-Saxon poetry, such as “The whale-road” for the sea. It has it equivalent in the stock epithet— “The wine-dark sea”, “ox-eyed Hera”, and the like—of the Greek epics, with which translation has made us more familiar.


1. A figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison, as in “a sea of troubles”.
2. One thing conceived as representing another; a symbol.

A word which in ordinary usage signifies one kind of thing, quality, or action is applied to another, without express indication of a relation between them. For example, if Burns had chosen to say “O my love is a red, red rose” he would have used, technically, a metaphor instead of a simile. Here is a more complex metaphor, from Stephen Spender:

Eye, gazelle, delicate wanderer,
Drinker of horizon’s fluid line

Metaphysical Poets

Dryden said in 1693 that John Donne in his poetry ” affects the metaphysics” — i.e., employs the terms and abstruse arguments of the Scholastic philosophers — and in 1779 Dr. Johnson extended the term “metaphysical” from Donne to a school of poets, in the acute and balanced critique he incorporated in his “Life of Cowley.” The term is now applied to a group of seventeenth-century poets who show signs of influence by Donne’s practice, both in secular poetry (Cleveland, Marvell, Cowley) and in religious poetry (Herbert, Vaughan, Crashaw).

Attempts have been made to demonstrate that the metaphysical poets held a philosophical world-view in common, but the term “metaphysical” fits these very diverse writers only if it is used as Johnson used it, to indicate merely a common poetic style and manner of thought. Donne set the pattern by writing poems which are expressed in a diction and rhythm modeled on the rough give and take of actual speech, which are often organized in the dramatic form of an argument–with his mistress, or an intruding friend, or God, or internally with himself–and which are persistently “witty” in their use of paradox, pun and startling parallels and distinctions. These poets have had some admirers in every age, but they were generally regarded as interesting eccentrics until an astonishing revaluation after World War I elevated Donne to a position near Shakespeare. The movement began with H. J. C. Grierson’s Introduction to Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century (1912), was given strong impetus by T. S. Eliot’s essay on “The metaphysical Poets” and “Andrew Marvell” (1921), and has been continued by a host of scholars and writers, including the New Critics. Refer to George Williamson, The Donne Tradition (1930), and R.C. Bald, Donne’s Influence in English Literature (1932)


A figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated, as in the use of Washington for the United States government or of the sword for military power. —

Two related classes of metaphor, which create an equation or identity between a part of a thing and the whole of between two things connected in some way are synecdoche and metonymy (See synecdoche below),


The use of the name of one thing for that of another is called metonymy, as in saying “the bottle” for “strong drink,” or in referring to “the crown” when “the king” is meant.
To state in exaggerated terms. —overstatement


If the paradoxical statement combines two terms that in ordinary usage are contraries, it is sometimes distinguished as an Oxymoron; for example Tennyson’s

O Death in Life, the days that are no more.

Petrarchan sonneteers were fond of the the oxymoron in phrases like “Pleasing pain,” “I burn and freeze,” “loving hate,” and so on. Donne exploited the paradox beyond all poets, and some of his poems are paradoxical in the over-all structure as well as in the component statements. “The canonization,” for example, is a long proof, full of local paradoxes, of the paradoxical thesis that profane lovers are saints.


1. A seemingly contradictory statement that may nonetheless be true.
2. One exhibiting inexplicable or contradictory aspects.
3. An assertion that is essentially self-contradictory, though based on a valid deduction from acceptable premises.
4. A statement contrary to received opinion.

A paradox is a statement that seems absurd or self-contradictory, but which turns out to have a tenable and coherent meaning, as in the conclusion to Donne’s sonnet of death:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.


1. The quality or condition of being parallel; a parallel relationship.
2. Likeness, correspondence, or similarity in aspect, course, or tendency.
3. Grammar. The use of identical or equivalent syntactic constructions in corresponding clauses.
4. Philosophy. The doctrine that to every mental change there corresponds a concomitant but causally unconnected physical alteration.


1. The act of personifying.
2. A person or thing typifying a certain quality or idea; an embodiment or exemplification.
3. A figure of speech in which inanimate objects or abstractions are endowed with human qualities or are represented as possessing human form, as in Hunger sat shivering on the road or Flowers danced about the lawn. Also called prosopopeia.
4. Artistic representation of an abstract quality or idea as a person.

Personification is that form of metaphor which treats an object or abstraction as if it were a person. Emily Dickinson transforms death into a courtly gentleman:

Because I could not stop for Death–
He kindly stopped for me–
The carriage held but just ourselves–
And Immortality.

In his poem “The Snowstorm,” Emerson speaks of the north wind as a mad architect who builds a fantastic world out of snow:

Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion . . . .

The Pun

is a play on words that are identical or similar in sound but have sharply diverse meanings, or it is the use of a single word or phrase with two incongruous meanings, both relevant. Puns have had serious as well as humorous uses. An example of the latter type, also know as an equivoque, is the epitaph on a bank tell:

He checked his cash, cashed in his checks,
And left his window. Who is next?


1. The act of representing or the state of being represented.
2. Something that represents.
3. a. An account or a statement, as of facts, allegations, or arguments.
b. An expostulation; a protest.
4. A presentation or production, as of a play.


A figure of speech in which two essentially unlike things are compared, often in a phrase introduced by like or as, as in “How like the winter hath my absence been” or “So are you to my thoughts as food to life” (Shakespeare).


a comparison between two essentially different items is expressly indicated by a term such as “like” or “as” a simple example is Burns’s 
“O my love’s like a red, red rose.” 

1. Something of the highest possible excellence.
2. The highest degree; the acme.
3. a. The superlative degree.
b. An adjective or adverb expressing the superlative degree, as in brightest, the superlative of the adjective bright, or most brightly, the superlative of the adverb brightly.


1. Something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible.
2. A printed or written sign used to represent an operation, an element, a quantity, a quality, or a relation, as in mathematics or music.

A symbol represents or stands for something else. The cross, for example, is a symbol of Christianity. Just as is the case with allegory, in order to recognize some symbols in poetry, you must be widely read in literature, religion, history, and myth. With the advent of the psychological theories of Freud and Jung, a wide-ranging tendency to use obscure personal symbols emerged among poets and other artists, adding a great deal of richness, but substantially complicating interpretation.


Synecdoche uses the part for the whole, as in the famous lines of Christopher Marlowe about Helen of Troy:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burned the topless towers of Ilium?

The term synecdoche may also be applied to the use of a special case in a generalized way, as a rich man is called a Rockefeller, 

The Tropes or “Turns”

Tropes meaning “turns” in which words are used with a decided change or extension in their otherwise literal meaning.


1. To state with less completeness or truth than seems warranted by the facts.
2. To express with restraint or lack of emphasis, especially ironically or for rhetorical effect.
3. To state (a quantity, for example) that is too low.
4. To give an understatement.


1. A disclosure or statement that is less than complete.
2. Restraint or lack of emphasis in expression, as for rhetorical effect.
3. Restraint in artistic expression.


In Greek means “Yoking” and applies to the use of a single word standing in the same grammatical relation to two other terms. A figure of speech in which one word, usually a verb, is used to modify two or more others, but making sense with only one, as in “the fragrance of flowers and the sky…”

© RH Peat 1987

This is the first of three articles. The Metaphorical and the Conceit (1)
The Metaphorical and the Conceit (2)
Seeing the Poem’s Depth to follow.

About the author:

RH PEAT lives in California; He’s published his poetry in the USA, New Zealand, Australia, India, England, Canada, and Japan. He’s taught workshops and operated poetry readings in California. He now operates a closed poetry workshop forum for writers on the internet.

Other Publications by R.H. Peat on Flashes:

Like a Comet, She is Distance
Bed of Sky
Interview with Poet & Artist R.H. Peat

Author’s website

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