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A Conceit or Just a Similitude?
Two Brief Illustrations from Sir John Suckling

by Joseph S. Salemi

One of the earliest things one learns in poetry is the distinction between a simile and a metaphor. In clearest terms, a simile makes use of the word like or as to connect two separate things in an imagined unity. When one writes My love is like a red rose, that is a simile. But if you were to write My love is a red rose, this is a metaphor. The preposition is omitted, and you are making a tighter and more complex linkage between the two objects being discussed. Both are useful tools in composition, but the metaphor has traditionally been thought of as a more difficult thing to manage, since it depends on guiding the reader to accept an imagined likeness by mere juxtaposition and suggestion.

Metaphor is actually the life’s blood of poetry, as it demands intense fictive imagination from the poet, as well as a capacity to summon up connections that are striking and unexpected. When T.S. Eliot writes in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” the following lines

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When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…

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he is creating straightforward simile, linking the evening to a patient on an operating table. This is the simple equation of one thing with another. It is a strikingly good simile, because it is both unexpected and jarring. But in the same poem Eliot produces an amazingly powerful metaphor when he describes the night-time fog of a London street:

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The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

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These eight lines make up one long sentence, in which the yellow smoke and fog are metaphorically imagined as a cat prowling the streets, even though the word “cat” is never mentioned. Eliot uses the typical movements of a cat to describe the slow meandering of smoke and fog as it drifts through the city’s by-ways. The linkage provided by a sustained metaphor of this type is deeper and more compelling than that which a mere simile can give.

Simile and metaphor are distinct, as I mentioned above. Nevertheless, I think we can put simile and metaphor together as aspects of one larger rhetorical category, which I call similitude. By similitude I mean any kind of likeness, resemblance, correspondence, parallel, or analogy created by the poet. Both the simile and the metaphor are types of similitude. But there is a third type of similitude called the “conceit,” which I have discussed twice here at the SCP (January 9, 2021 and March 27, 2021). The conceit is an extended metaphor resting upon an unusual or improbable link that has to be developed at some length by the poet to be made clear to the reader. It also has to be something unheard-of and strange.

To illustrate what I mean, I would like to analyze two short poems by Sir John Suckling (1609-1642). He was the roistering Cavalier poet whose gambling, womanizing, and soldiering were famous in the court of King Charles. I’ve chosen two poems by him, “The Candle” and “Upon Thomas Carew, Having the Pox.” The poems are short enough to examine quickly, and they show the difference between a mere similitude and a full-blown conceit. And they are both erotically tinged, which will make for an interesting analysis.

Suckling’s “A Candle” is a comic similitude, in that it facetiously compares the male sexual organ (without naming it) to something else, and leaving it to the reader’s ingenuity to make the connection. It’s exactly what Eliot does in the above-quoted lines about fog—he never mentions the word “cat.” This is in the tradition of those Anglo-Saxon riddle poems that describe some ordinary object in a figurative or symbolic way, inviting the reader to guess what’s in the poet’s mind. But Suckling gives the answer to his riddle directly, in the poem’s title, and follows it up with a provocative description:

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The Candle

There is a thing which in the light
Is seldom us’d; but in the night
It serves the maiden female crew,
The ladies, and the good-wives too:
They use to take it in their hand,_________[They use to: They are accustomed to]
And then it will uprightly stand;
And to a hole they it apply,
Where by its goodwill it would die;_________[by its goodwill: voluntarily, freely]
It spends, goes out, and still within
It leaves its moisture thick and thin.

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This poem does not contain a conceit. There is no strange idea being worked out here, as in Donne’s image of the compass in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” All Suckling does is talk about a candle. It is seldom used in daytime, but is helpful at night to all kinds of women. They take in their hands, and make it stand up. They place it in a hole, where eventually it spends itself and goes out, leaving behind a dense “moisture” (soft wax). It’s obvious to any perceptive reader that Suckling is describing the penis, which grows erect at the female touch, and which women then guide into their vaginas, and which ejaculates there and grows limp, leaving behind a moist and sticky fluid (semen).

There is nothing complex here. It is a simple simile or metaphor in ten lines. All the poem really says is “A penis is like a candle,” and puts together five instances of similarity to make the case. It’s meant to be a joke, and jokes do not work if they depend on strange parallels that are not immediately understood. A poetic conceit, on the other hand, forces the reader to think and analyze, and we can examine Suckling’s other poem to see the difference. This one is addressed to Suckling’s fellow poet, Thomas Carew, and deals with Carew’s unfortunate case of venereal disease (the “pox,” probably here to be understood as gonorrhea):

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Upon Thomas Carew, Having the Pox

Troth, Tom, I must confess I much admire___[Troth: in truth]
Thy water should find passage through the fire;__[water: urine / fire: the pain of urination]
For fire and water never could agree:
These now by nature have some sympathy.
Sure then his way he forces, for all know
The French ne’er grants a passage to his foe.__[The French: the “French Pox,” a name for v. disease]
If it be so, his valour I must praise,
That being the weaker, yet can force his ways;
And wish that to his valour he had strength,
That he might drive the fire quite out at length;
For, troth, as yet the fire gets the day,_________[as yet: still]
For evermore the water runs away.

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This poem is based on a true conceit—i.e., a strange and somewhat farfetched metaphor that is sustained for some length. It begins with the speaker wondering that “water” (urine) should be able to find its way through “fire” (the burning sensation of the venereal infection), since normally fire and water never go together. The conceit is further developed with the notion that “the French” (to be understood as both a fierce enemy and the venereal disease itself) never let a foe pass, but in this case the weaker but brave “water” forces its way through. The speaker then wishes that the “water” had strength to match its bravery, and put out the opposing “fire.” But it doesn’t happen—the fire wins the battle, and the water “runs away” (is excreted).

This conceit contains several distinct elements: the conflict of water and fire understood as urine and the physical discomfort of urination; the “French” as the disease, and a traditional enemy of the English; water can “pass” through fire; water is brave enough to do that, but is not strong enough to extinguish the fire, which always wins out and the water flees. It’s all a complex fictive way of saying that when you have gonorrhea it hurts to urinate.

Notice that both poems could be reduced to their simple “messages”—something that too many people still think is the be-all and end-all of the craft of verse. But the messages of these two poems are essentially trivial and unimportant. What makes them art is their different ways of employing similitude. “The Candle” just creates a comic metaphor of a simple nature, while “Upon Thomas Carew…” creates a delightful conceit about an imagined battle between water and fire, with the pox metaphorically conceived as the “French” foe. Both are excellent examples of seventeenth-century “wit,” understood as the ability to manipulate language ingeniously to make fascinating and entertaining structures.

I can imagine that some readers are impatient at this point, and want to have a strict definitional division of the simile, the metaphor, and the conceit. Well, what I hoped to show is that the boundaries are not always that clear. Just as Suckling’s “A Candle” might be taken either as a metaphor or a simile, so also might the conceit in “Upon Thomas Carew…” be understood as nothing but a rather long and strained metaphor. Since a conceit often contains a few interrelated metaphors, this can get confusing. The main point is not how to label these tools, but to see that they are all forms of similitude.

In my experience, the most accomplished poets make use of all three forms, depending on the type of poem being composed. In longer pieces, such as the epic, all three might appear. A truly gifted poet is one whose mind and perception are naturally fixed on the likenesses and analogies that crop up when we look around us, or when we interact with others. Creating a simile, a metaphor, or a conceit is as natural to such a poet as breathing.

Shakespeare created similitudes as easily as a baker makes loaves of bread. Would you rather spout humdrum advice like “If you take out loans, you’ll never learn to economize,” or say with Polonius that “borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry”? The first is platitudinous; the second brilliantly equates of husbandry with a sharp knife, and borrowing with a process of degradation or corrosion. The South African poet Roy Campbell’s knockout poem “Don Juan Tenorio” is packed with similes, metaphors, and conceits, as one can see from the first three quatrains:

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Ten cuckolds slain without confession
In duels, by the waterfront
Of Hades, in a glum procession,
Are singing out from Charon’s punt.

Ten weeping women dry their clothes,
Washed up along the homeless sands
By the Red Sea of perjured oaths
That shoals with amputated hands.

These were the fruits of all your swagger
But through their tears will swim no more
Those ice-cold fish, your sword and dagger,
Whose fin-wake is a streak of gore.

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Don Juan’s deception and betrayal of women are likened to “the Red Sea of perjured oaths,” and that sea is filled with “amputated hands” suggesting the traditional punishment for oath breakers. But the third quatrain is spectacular: Don Juan’s weapons are imagined as “ice-cold fish” that swim through the tearful waters of his victims, and like fish, they leave behind a “fin-wake” that is like the bloody streak left on the slashed flesh of the men Don Juan has killed. A conceit pulled off in four lines! And the rest of the poem is just as riveting in its command of language. Roy Campbell was one of the best traditional poets of the twentieth century, but he’s been deliberately ignored and shadow-cancelled because of his devout Catholicism, his eloquent championing of Francisco Franco, and his savage lampooning of literary liberalism.

Scriptural writers were not immune to the lures of similitude, and used it regularly—more than a lot of literal-minded pietists care to admit. There is a wonderful example of the force of similitude in Matthew 15. A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus, and begs Him to help her possessed daughter. He ignores the woman, and His disciples urge Him to dismiss her. Jesus agrees, saying that His mission is to the people of Israel, and nobody else. When the woman persists in her pleas, Jesus answers “It is not good to take the bread of the children, and to cast it to the dogs.” This is pure metaphor—Jesus makes a clear distinction between His own people of Israel (“children”), and other people (“dogs”) who are not members of that tribe. But the Canaanite woman replies with a counter-metaphor: “Yea, Lord; for the whelps also eat of the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters.” The woman is saying “We may be small dogs (‘whelps’), but small dogs also can eat leftover crumbs from the table of their superiors.” Jesus is pleased and impressed by this metaphor, and grants the woman her wish.

Even God is delighted and convinced by good human similitudes.

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Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine TRINACRIA and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.


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13 Responses

  1. Sally Cook

    Dear Joe,
    I love the work of Suckling. His sense of humor sparkles. probably because he was he wasn’t very old when he left this earth, and had not yet had time to be ground down on life’s millstones.
    Two questions: where does verisimilitude fit here? Second question: – in a recent poem of mine, a woman gives her kitchen utensils away under sad circumstances.
    One line reads “A flowered pitcher, empty, save for tears”
    Metaphor?

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Dear Sally —

      Well, if by verisimilitude we mean close adherence to the actual facts of life (the true details of a historical narrative, the emotions really felt by a poet, a description that genuinely coincides with the thing being described, or a warts-and-all portrait of a person we have known), then it’s a complicated matter. Very few poets tell the EXACT truth, or give a cold police report about something that occurred. We always change things, heighten emotional force, omit trivial details, revise the facts to make them more exciting, and frequently we lie through our teeth about whatever we are talking about. That’s why the Scots called poet “makars.” We make things up.

      When a poet is trapped in a moral adherence to verisimilitude, he is working with one hand tied behind his back. He has to be “true to life.” And this cuts him off from all the fictive possibilities that could enrich his work. This is a very real problem with “confessional” poets, who refuse to revise their experiences rhetorically. They will write nothing that departs from real-world “facts.”

      The nice thing about similitudes (whether similes or metaphors or conceits) is that they liberate you from verisimilitude without forcing you to depart from the actual truth. If I say “He was as angry as a raging lion” I am telling the honest-to-God truth about a pissed-off guy, but I am enhancing it with a comparison that neither adds nor detracts from that truth.

      The line you give (A flowered pitcher, empty, save for tears”) is a complex kind of metaphor. Talking about an empty flowered pitcher is pure statement, without ornamentation. But when you add “save for tears,” you summon up a world of fictive imagination. The strange image of tears in a pitcher immediately transforms the pitcher into a living, sentient thing, and the reader is moved into a world where the pitcher is a weeping person whose life is hollow and despairing. It is very effective.

      Reply
      • Sally Cook

        Joe, thanks so very much for un-confusing me.
        I couild never write anything which is not fictive; (you have taught me that), which removes verisimilitude from the picture.

        And as for the “flowered pitcher, emjpty, save for tears”, l have
        always had trouble distinguishing characteristics of objects, plants and people.

        You are very kind to go out of your way to explain these things to me.

        Computer has gone nuts again.

  2. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    I have gained much from this clear and concise essay that uses some magnificent literary examples to get the point across. I have studied the conceit with some confusion. You make this similitude accessible and inspirational.

    Eliot’s cat metaphor is one of the finest I’ve read and though I’ve aspired to reach such heights, I am still trying… happily, I might add. If only my Literature teacher had turned my head with Sir John Suckling’s colorful and memorable poems – I would have had a greater appreciation for similitudes and reveled in their delights. Roy Campbell’s “Don Juan Tenorio” really is a knockout poem that is all the better for the stimulating analysis.

    Joe, thank you very much for continuing to shine a light on all the hidden jewels poetry has to offer and encouraging me to polish up my conceits – and for reminding me (in highly entertaining language) how fun it is to use all the linguistic tricks of the trade fine poetry has to offer.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Dear Susan —

      I’m always happy to help other poets, and you are one of the best poets writing here. Thank you for your kind words.

      Reply
  3. Roy E. Peterson

    I have always learned a lot when Sir Joseph stirred my pot! Extremely lucid presentation with great examples to help us remember the teaching points.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Dear Roy —

      I only wish I had a knighthood! But we don’t have stuff like that here in the USA. I assume you put in “Sir” just to keep the meter of that first rhyming sentence. I hope I have encouraged more people to read Suckling and Campbell.

      Reply
  4. Paul A Freeman

    As always, an instructive rollercoaster ride through the poetic miasma. I’ve never really looked at Suckling, but will now.

    The Eliot excerpt, apart from being brilliant, intrigued me. Every year I read ‘A Christmas Carol’, the archetypal epitome of the snowy-white festive season. Yet there are constant mentions of the yellow fog and falling soot particles – the sulphurous and infamous London smogs. And this dates from 1843. I suppose the smoggy, mysterious atmosphere doesn’t translate well to celluloid and our preconceptions.

    I do have a poem in mind with a sustained conceit which I’ll send off to Evan when I get home.

    Thanks for a read that deserves going back to and a wider distribution, Joseph.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Dear Paul —

      I suppose the infamous London “fog” has been with us for many centuries, even before industrialization. Since many households burned coal in the city, and the Thames sends up a steady mist, the fog became a well-known facet of how persons all over the world thought of London.

      On my first trip to England, one evening I and two companions rode in a typical English black cab near the Houses of Parliament. It was midnight, and the streets were thick with that same yellow fog that you mention. All of a sudden Big Ben started to chime in its inimitable way. We were mesmerized by the sheer imaginative force of the situation. One of my friends turned to me and said “Are we back in a Sherlock Holmes story? Is it 1888? Is Jack the Ripper prowling the streets tonight?”

      We all laughed, but agreed that we now had a first-hand experience of the reality of London.

      Reply
  5. Gary Borck

    Joseph, as soon as I see your name attached to an essay, I am quickly moved to read it. Your essays are always informative, entertaining, stimulating and enlightening.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  6. Patricia Redfern

    I am in the same ballpark as Gary! Thank you for the enlightening pieces.

    In appreciation,
    Patricia

    Reply

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