Explain the conceits in Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Shakespeare’s sonnets are beautiful pieces of lyric poetry. In their variety of imagery, unrivalled expression, felicity of phrase, wealth of similes and metaphors. These sonnets stand unique in English poetry. The conceits form an essential part of these sonnets. In fact the charm of Shakespeare’s lyricism in sonnets lies in the use of conceits in them.

In sonnet 22 there is a conceit in the following lines in which Shakespeare says that even the mirror cannot convince him that he is old as long as his friend is young:

My glass shall not persuade me i am old, so long as youth and thou are of one date. In this very sonnet he says that his friend’s external beauty is merely the garment of the poet’s heart. His heart lives in the friend’s breast just as the friend’s heart stays in his breast:

For all that beauty that doth cover thee Is

but the seemly raiment of my heart

Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me.

In sonnet 24, Shakespeare refers to his eyes as painting the portrait of his friend in his heart. He calls his body as the frame: “My body is the frame wherein ‘tis held.” His friend is an inspiration to the poet. Shakespeare calls him the tenth Muse and says in sonnet 38:

Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth

Than those old nine which rhymers invocate.

In sonnet 43, The conceit is a bit complex. To express the simple idea that he sees his friend in his dreams, he uses the following conceit :

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,

For all the day view things unresected,

But when I sleep, dreams they look on thee.

There is yet another conceit in which Shakespeare speaks of the heavier elements like earth and water, and the lighter elements in his body prevent him from flymg to his friend during the period of their separation while the lighter elements keep company with the friend no matter where the friend is. The conceit is expressed thus:

But that, so much of earth and water wrought

I must attend time’s leisure with my moan.

The other two, slight air and purging fire.

Are both with thee, wherever I abide.

The poet’s eyes and heart are at war about how to divide the conquest of the image of the poet’s friend. In other words, the poet’s eyes want to possess the image of the poet’s friend, while the poet’s heart claims that image as its own. The conceit is as follows:

Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war

How to divide the conquest of thy sight.

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But one of the finest conceits occurs in Sonnet 53 in which the poet poses a question: “what is your substance….?” He makes it possible for innumerable shadows to attend on his friend. Everybody has only one shadow, but the friend can cast every kind of shadow. A description of the handsome Adonis would be a poor imitation of the friend. If a description of Helen were written. The poet’s friend would appear afresh in that description in Grecian guise:

Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit

Is poorly imitated after you;

On Helen’s check all art of beauty set,

And you in Grecian tires are painted new.

In Sonnet 59, Shakespeare imagines that the descriptions of beauty written in older times must have contained pictures of the poet’s friend. The poet would like to have a glimpse of those antique pictures in order to know whether the actual reality is superior to those pictures or inferior to them:

Show me your image in some antique book,

Since mind at first in character was done,

That I might see what the old world could say

To this composed wonder of your frame.

Shakespeare regards his friend as his own other sell. Thus, he disguises his own old age by investing himself with the youth and beauty of his friend. This conceit, appears in Sonnet 62:

‘Tis thee, myself, that for myself I praise,

Painting any age with beauty of thy days.

Another conceit is given in Sonnet 68, Shakespeare deplores the use of paint and powder to enhance one’s physical charm and refers to his friend as Nature sample of beauty by looking at which he becomes aware of the difference between genuine beauty such as that of the poet’s friend and the false beauty produced by the use of cosmetics, etc:

And him as for a map doth Nature store,

To show false Art what beauty was of you.

In another interesting conceit in Sonnet 98, Shakespeare presents the very fanciful idea that the whiteness of the lily and the redness of the rose have been modelled on his friend’s charms. He says:

Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white

Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose:

They were but sweet, but figures of delight,

Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.

This conceit is carried ahead in sonnet 99 also:

More flowers I noted, yet I none could see

But sweet or colour it had stolen from thee.

In Sonnet 106 occurs one of the prettiest conceits in which the poet imagines that all the descriptions of beauty written by the ancient poets were prophecies of this our time. All them prefiguring the poet’s friend:

So all their praises are but prophecies

Of this our time, all you prefiguring.

In Sonnet 133, The poet imagines his own heart to be a prisoner in the prison- ward of his mistress’s steel bosom. And calls upon his beloved to release his friend on bail. Here is the conceit:

Prison my heart in thy steel bosom’s ward,

But then my friend’s heart let my poor heart bail.

In Sonnet 150, There is a conceit when the poet. Addressing his mistress, says that in the worst of her deeds there is such strength and skill that her worst appears to him to be better than people’s best:

That in the very refuse of thy deeds,

There is such strength and warranties of skill,

That, in my mind, thy worst all best exceeds.

The last two sonnets have very interesting conceits. The poet imagines in the first sonnet that when Diana. The moon-goddess four 4 Cupid sleeping with his torch by his side. She took the torch and dipped it into the water of the fountain. The torch was so hot that it heated the water and the water has remained hot ever since. It has been considered a sovereign cure for a number of maladies, though it could not cure the poet’s passion for his mistress. In the next sonnet the same conceit is elaborated in a different manner. The love-sick poet went to take a bath in the curative water.

But I, my mistress’ thrall

Came there for cure, and this by that I prove

Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.

Thus, the sonnets of Shakespeare are rich with conceits which amply prove that the poet possessed fertile imagination and poetic genius.

“Possibly the main sub-group of the conceit is that concerned with the passage of time. In which the poet uses the swift passage of time as an argument for his lady to surrender to his seduction. This tradition is known as carpe diem (seize the day) and is a conceit which was originated by the Roman poet – Horace (65-8 B. C.) and is widely found in English literature. Shakespeare draws upon this tradition in, for example. Venus and Adonis and Twelfth Night in his sonnets, Shakespeare makes frequent reference to time. This prominent feature of the sequence is a development of the conceit. And a very sophisticated development at that.”



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