One of the first literary devices most English students learn is ‘simile’, which is derived from the Latin word ‘similis’, meaning ‘like’.
The word ‘similar’, which means things that bear resemblance but aren’t exactly identical, should also come to mind.
This is why simile is relatively easy to spot in literature – all you have to do is find the word “like” or the phrase “as [something] as” in the context of a comparison between two things, and there you have it.
That said, simile is the most obvious comparative device, and when placed alongside its similar, but slightly distinctive cousins – metaphor, conceit, and analogy – it could get confusing.
The difference between simile, metaphor, conceit and analogy
To sum it up, here’s an infographic that outlines the relationship and definition of simile, metaphor, conceit and analogy:
Analogy is a tricky one, because it could double as a synonym for the general word ‘comparison’ (i.e. any kind of comparison could technically be called an ‘analogy’), but it could also carry a more specific meaning, i.e. an extended comparison in which the parts of two things are respectively compared.
And how is analogy different from simile and metaphor?
It’s largely a matter of scale.
Here’s another infographic to help you visualise what this means:
Some of you may know that I’m adopting Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 as my example here, in which the speaker actually says his mistress’ eyes, lips, breasts, breath and gait are not like any of the wonderful items he’s listed (apart from the hair, which he compares to dull “black wires”).
But the point nonetheless stands: the Sonnet is analogical, because the speaker’s Mistress is figuratively ‘broken down’ into different parts, which are then each compared to as different things:
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.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare
As You Like It (1599), William Shakespeare
Here’s another example of analogy from Shakespeare, taken from As You Like It:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
This is the perfect example to illustrate the hierarchy between simile and metaphor vs. analogy, because contained within this analogy of “the world” and “the stage”, “men and women” and “players” (thesps/actors), human life and theatrical performance – are similes and metaphors that compare each stage of one’s life to successive acts in a play.
The vivid accuracy of “the whining school-boy… creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school” is a simile that perhaps applies to almost all of us at some point in our childhoods, while the thermal emphasis in “the lover, sighing like furnace” is a clear nod to the febrile passion that buttresses a romance in its early stages.
The soldier, “bearded like the pard”, is compared to a vicious safari animal which is “sudden and quick”, if not also dangerous and explosive. The hotheaded egotism that’s so characteristic of young men is not absent from our soldier here, whose “seeking [of] the bubble reputation/Even in the cannon’s mouth” is implied to be foolish behaviour; after all, the sort of “reputation” that is “bubble”-like, and therefore, fleeting, is not worth risking one’s life for. The use of the bubble metaphor is clever, as it levitates in a word what is otherwise a rather heavy description and message about misguided martyrdom.
Even more ingenious is perhaps the phrase “second childishness” in the penultimate line of Jacques’ speech; as one approaches the final years in life, senescence, with its swift ability to rob us of basic human functions – walking, talking, eating, excreting – ironically renders the old childlike, and grants us a ‘second attempt’ at childishness, a sort of Benjamin Button-esque ‘return’ to childhood.
All of this comparative richness is couched within the overarching analogy of life being similar to theatre. We are born in the same way the actor first ascends the stage; we depart from the world in like manner as the actor makes his exit, leaving behind nothing but dimness. But in between life’s stages and theatre’s scene changes, moments occur, personalities appear, and passions take their course.
What’s the deal with ‘conceit’?
In most cases, understanding what simile, metaphor and analogy mean is good enough for most English students. But if you’re into poetry or want to take your technical literary knowledge to the ‘next level’, then perhaps it’s worth paying attention to the conceit as well. (By the way, conceit as a figurative device has nothing to do with the word’s primary meaning, which is “excessive pride in oneself”)
The other term for conceit is an extended metaphor, but what differentiates conceit from its comparative cousins is that it compares things that are very different in nature, whereas simile, metaphor and to a large extent, analogy, are concerned with things that share reasonable similarities.
Basically, if you find yourself thinking ‘WTF, how are those two things related’, then it’s very likely you’re looking at an example of conceit.
‘The Sun Rising’ (1633), John Donne
If it matters at all, the Metaphysical school of poets (composed of Renaissance wits such as John Donne, which I reference in this post, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, Abraham Cowley etc.) were big fans of the conceit, which they used frequently in their works.
Here’s a hilarious one from John Donne, titled ‘The Sun Rising’ (1633):
Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.
She’s all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus.
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.
In this cheekily risque poem, Donne draws a surprising comparison between the sun and a lover – surprising, because there doesn’t seem to be much literal resemblance between the solar object and a person in love.
By portraying the morning sun as an unwelcome intruder into his bedroom, however, the speaker makes a series of comparative (and competitive!) parallels, which allows him to reimagine the natural ‘intruder’ as a personal rival:
“Reverend and strong” as the sun’s “beams” may seem, to the lovestruck speaker they pale in comparison to his lover’s ‘blindingly’ bright eyes. To extend on his hyperbolic point, he playfully challenges the sun to “Look, tomorrow late” “if her eyes have not blinded thine”.
The speaker continues to taunt the sun by pointing out its solitary status (“Thou, sun, art half as happy as we” – you’re just one; we’re two) and old age (“Thine age asks ease” – relax, old man), both of which he contrasts against his own state of blissful coupledom and sexual vitality.
This is why, despite the sun’s global reach and “contracted… duties… to warm the world”, the speaker implies that it may as well be warming nothing else but him and his lover (“that’s done in warming us”), as their passion is so feverish that even the bedchamber walls seem as hot as “thy sphere” – the sun’s domain.
Upon close reading, what had initially seemed like a nonsensical combination becomes a clever and amusing comparison.
To sum up, then, if a comparison is:
b) broken down into a comparison of its different parts, and
c) between two things that are seemingly unrelated, unexpected, or odd,
then it’s most likely an example of conceit.
Do you find it difficult to tell between simile, metaphor, analogy and conceit? Comment below with your thoughts and questions! I’d love to hear from you.
One thought on “Your ultimate guide to simile, metaphor, analogy & conceit”
Really good to review later in life after hearing a lot of miss use and abuse and refreshing the mind.