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Canto

Imagine what it would be like to read a novel without any chapters or paragraphs. It would be extremely exhausting and confusing to read such a long continuous body of text and understand its meaning. Similarly, even poems need to be broken up into shorter pieces, especially longer ones. One such example of an element used to divide poetry is a stanza. A canto is something very similar to a stanza. But how are the two different? Let us look at the meaning and examples of a canto to find out.

Canto meaning

A canto is a subdivision or subsection of long works of poetry, such as epic poems or other narrative poems. Therefore, it is not exactly a form of poetry but rather an element or unit of poetry.


Epic poem: Long narrative poems chronicling the adventures and deeds of extraordinary heroic characters.


A canto has no specific format or writing style and can include any type of rhyme scheme or meter. Generally, most cantos tend to be longer than five lines.


The word 'canto' is an Italian term that was derived from the Latin word 'cantus', which means 'to sing'.


This name came about because cantos were first used by minstrels who narrated lengthy heroic poems to the nobility with the accompaniment of musical instruments. These poems were broken down into smaller cantos for convenience, as it helped the singers memorise the work easier and also served as natural pauses for the musicians and listeners.


Cantos Minstrels Canto History StudySmarterFig. 1 - A painting depicting the minstrels of Italy by Gustavo Simoni, a 19th-century Italian painter.

Canto poetry

So why are cantos used in poetry?


Since cantos are primarily used for narrative poems, they break the plot of a poem into several plot points or sub-plots. Therefore, each canto should ideally have its own beginning, middle and end. That way, individual cantos can either aid the reader's understanding of the poem as a whole or exist as a standalone piece with its own storyline and theme.


This format makes longer poems more digestible for the reader, who can choose to enjoy individual subsections of a long poem instead of trying to wrap their mind around an unbroken body of text with never-ending rhymes and meters.


The break at the end of each canto gives the reader a chance to stop, reflect and appreciate everything they have just read.


Dante's Divine Comedy (1320) consists of 14,233 lines in total. Imagine reading that as a continuously rolling body of text! Well, Dante Alighieri makes use of cantos to help break up what could have been an extremely tedious and dense read. First, he divided the poem into three chapters - Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso - detailing Dante's journey in every stage of the afterlife. Each chapter is further broken down into 33 cantos and one additional introductory canto. This makes the poem more bite-sized and easy on the eyes.


Canto Divine Comedy Canto Examples StudySmarterFig. 2 - Illustration of Dante's Divine Comedy (1320) by William Blake


Not only are cantos helpful for those who are reading the poem, but also for poets writing it. Breaking the poem into smaller subsections allows the poet to focus on enhancing each individual part. This is because poets need to focus on making each canto self-contained and understandable as an isolated piece. This improves the overall impact of the poem.


Cantos also make it more convenient to change the rhyme scheme or meter of the poem while moving from one canto to another, rather than randomly switching a poem's format and style mid-poem. A canto also allows the poet to include narrative devices such as cliffhangers, which can help build anticipation and excitement.


Cliffhanger: A type of ending where the readers are not given a definitive answer or resolution but are left with an unanswered question or possibility to create suspense.

Canto vs stanza

A canto serves the same purpose as that of a stanza. They both break up long bodies of poetry into smaller comprehensible units.


Stanza: A division of poetry that breaks a poem into separate units of two or more lines each.


The only difference between a stanza and a canto is that a stanza is usually shorter in length than a canto. For this reason, stanzas cannot exist as standalone pieces and can only be read as a part of the whole poem to be understood. They do not have their own beginning, middle and end.


Additionally, stanzas can be used for poems of any length. Cantos are usually reserved for longer epic poems or narrative poems.


A canto can consist of multiple stanzas or can exist as one long stanza.


CantoStanzaUsually longer than five lines.Can be as short as two lines.Usually can be understood as standalone pieces. Have their own beginning, middle and end. Usually cannot exist as standalone pieces. Do not have their own beginning, middle or end. Typically reserved for long epic poems or narrative poems. Can be used on poems of any length.

Canto examples

Here are a few famous examples of literary works that make use of cantos.

Inferno (1320) by Dante Alighieri

Although cantos had been used before, Dante Alighieri was the first poet to use the term 'canto' to describe the subsections of his Divine Comedy (1320).


Inferno is the first of Dante's three-chapter epic poem. In this chapter, Dante goes through the circles of hell and meets several sinners undergoing punishment, ultimately ending with him finding Satan.


Let's take a look at the first four stanzas of Canto I from Inferno that introduce the characters and setting of the poem.


Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.


Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.


So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.


I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way.

Canto I has 46 stanzas in total, out of which 45 are tercets, and one is a monostich.


Tercets: A three-lined stanza

Monostich: A single lined stanza

Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy (1320) is structured in an interesting way. It is broken down into three chapters, which are further broken down into 33 cantos consisting of stanzas that are three lines each. Notice a pattern? There are a lot of threes (or multiples of threes) in the poem.

Three is an extremely important number in Christianity, as it represents the Divine Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Dante uses this number in the structure of his poetry to symbolise the soul's journey to God.


The Faerie Queene (1590) by Edmund Spenser

Edmund Spenser was the first English poet to use cantos as a divisive unit in The Faerie Queene (1590). The Faerie Queene is one of the longest epic poems written in English, with over 36,000 lines and over 4,000 stanzas. The entire poem is spread out across six volumes, each of which details the adventures of knights with different virtues.


Here is the first stanza of Canto I, Volume 1.

A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,
Y cladd in mightie armes and silver shielde,
Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,
The cruell markes of many a bloudy fielde;
Yet armes till that time did he never wield:
His angry steede did chide his foming bitt,
As much disdayning to the curbe to yield:
Full jolly knight he seemd, and faire did sitt,
As one for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt.


Canto The Faerie Queen Canto Examples StudySmarterFig. 3 - An illustration from The Faerie Queen published in 1859

The Cantos (1925) by Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound's unfinished poem The Cantos consists of 116 cantos which include historical references, myths and languages from many different parts of the world. The cantos are long, with an irregular number of stanzas of varying lengths.


These are the first few lines of Canto I

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas,
Circe's this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.



Canto - Key takeaways

  • A canto is a subdivision or subsection of long works of poetry, such as epic poems or other narrative poems.
  • Cantos help break long, tedious poems into small sections that make it easier for the reader to understand the poem.
  • Individual cantos can exist as standalone pieces with their own storyline and theme.
  • Stanzas are shorter in length compared to cantos and can be used in any type of poetry, not necessarily epic poems or narrative poems. They cannot exist as standalone pieces.
  • Here are examples of literary works that make use of cantos:

    • Inferno (1320) by Dante Alighieri

    • The Faerie Queene (1590) by Edmund Spenser

    • The Cantos (1925) by Ezra Pound




References
  1. Fig. 1 - Public Domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gustavo_Simoni_-_The_Minstrels_Story.jpg
  2. Fig. 2 - Public Domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Illustrations_to_Dante%27s_Divine_Comedy_object_9_Butlin_812-9Minos.jpg
  3. Fig. 3 - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Faerie_queene-_(1859)_(14585046127).jpg

Frequently Asked Questions about Canto

A canto is a subdivision or subsection of long works of poetry, such as epic poems or other narrative poems.

Here are examples of literary works that make use of cantos:

  • Inferno (1320) by Dante Alighieri

  • The Faerie Queene (1590) by Edmund Spenser

  • The Cantos (1925) by Ezra Pound

The only difference between a stanza and a canto is that a stanza is usually shorter in length than a canto. Unlike cantos, stanzas cannot exist as standalone pieces and can only be read as a part of the whole poem to be understood. Additionally, stanzas can be used for poems of any length. Cantos are usually reserved for longer epic poems or narrative poems. 


The Cantos (1925) is an unfinished epic poem by Ezra Pound.

Since cantos are primarily used for narrative poems, they break the plot of a poem into several plot points or sub-plots. Therefore, each canto should ideally have its own beginning, middle and end. That way, individual cantos can either aid the reader's understanding of the poem as a whole or exist as a standalone piece with its own storyline and theme

Final Canto Quiz

Question

What is a canto?

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Answer

A canto is a subdivision or subsection of long works of poetry, such as epic poems or other narrative poems.

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Question

What kind of poems typically use cantos?

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Answer

Cantos are typically reserved for long works of poetry, such as epic poems or other narrative poems.

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Question

Where does the word 'canto' come from?

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Answer

The word 'canto' is an Italian term that was derived from the Latin word 'cantus' which means 'to sing'. 

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Question

What is the purpose of using a canto?

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Answer

Cantos break the plot of a poem into several plot points or sub-plots. 

This format makes longer poems more digestible for the reader, who can choose to enjoy individual subsections of a long poem instead of trying to wrap their mind around an unbroken body of text with never-ending rhymes and meters. 


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Question

A canto and stanza serve the same purpose in poetry. True or False?

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Answer

True

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Question

Which one of these can be understood as a standalone piece?

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Answer

Canto

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Question

Which one of these does NOT have its own beginning, middle or end?

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Answer

Stanza

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Question

How many cantos are in each chapter of the Divine Comedy (1320)?

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Answer

Each chapter of Dante's Divine Comedy (1320) consists of 33 cantos (plus one introductory canto in Inferno)

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Question

Who was the first English poet to use cantos and for which literary work?

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Answer

Edmund Spenser was the first English poet to use cantos as a divisive unit in The Faerie Queene (1590)

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Question

Who wrote The Cantos (1925) ?

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Answer

The Cantos (1925) is an unfinished epic poem by Ezra Pound

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