The term is uncommonly used today. When it is used, it is usually in reference to a division in an epic poem or medieval story/novel. It comes from the 16th-century Latin meaning “step” or “pace.” This relates to its scholarly use in reference to sections of a literary work.
Passus pronunciation: passes
The term “passus” is used to describe a section or division of a poem, short story, or novel. It is a Latin word that’s uncommonly used today.
Far more often, readers are going to encounter the word “canto” when learning about epic poetry and “chapter” or “section” when learning about short stories and novels. The word “part” is also often used. For example, how it is used in the following sentence: “I read part I of 1984.” Poets also use roman numerals when sectioning their poetry. For example, in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ Coleridge uses “Part I” through “Part VII” to divide his long poem. This is a type of passus.
Examples of Passus in Literature
The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
The Faerie Queene is a good example of an epic poem that uses passus, or divisions. Although, the term “canto” is far more commonly used when speaking about this poem. In fact, it was Edmund Spenser who first used the term “canto” in English.
His use of cantos helps to structure the poem, which is quite long and allows one an easier way of approaching it. If the poem was without divisions, it would be far harder to read. Here are the first few lines from Book I, Canto I:
A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,
Y cladd in mightie armes and siluer shielde,
Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,
The cruell markes of many’ a bloudy fielde;
Yet armes till that time did he neuer wield:
His angry steede did chide his foming bitt,
As much disdayning to the curbe to yield:
Full iolly knight he seemd, and faire did sitt,
As one for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt.
The poem contains over 36,000 lines and 4,000 stanzas, making it quite clear why Spenser needed to use a division of some sort.
Read more poems by Edmund Spenser.
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
The Divine Comedy is another great example of how passus or divisions are used within long epic poems. The Divine Comedy is made up of three long books, each one of which contains many cantos. Throughout the entire epic, there are 100 cantos, creating 100 different passuses. There are 33 in Inferno, 33 in Purgatorio, and 33 in Paradiso; the final canto appears as an introduction before Dante begins his journey. Here are a few lines from the 5th canto of Inferno, the first book of The Divine Comedy:
Thus I descended out of the first circle
Down to the second, that less space begirds,
And so much greater dole, that goads to wailing.
There standeth Minos horribly, and snarls;
Examines the transgressions at the entrance;
Judges, and sends according as he girds him.
I say, that when the spirit evil-born
Cometh before him, wholly it confesses;
And this discriminator of transgressions
Seeth what place in Hell is meet for it;
Girds himself with his tail as many times
As grades he wishes it should be thrust down.
The passus in The Divine Comedy function much like contemporary chapters in a book, separating out events and locations.
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Paradise Lost is commonly considered to be Milton’s masterpiece. It is a long epic poem. When it was first published, it was divided into ten books with over 10,000 lines. Later, it was republished in 1674 in twelve books. These twelve books act as passus that divides the story into sections. Here is a quote from the beginning of Paradise Lost:
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of EDEN, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of OREB, or of SINAI, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of CHAOS: Or if SION Hill
Delight thee more, and SILOA’S Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song
Milton’s use of divisions helps readers make sense of the story. Without them, it would be far more difficult to understand how the elements connect to one another.
Explore more John Milton poems.
Passus is a division in a narrative or epic poem, novel, or short story. These are usually medieval in nature.
A passus is used to describe a division in a poem or story. Authors create them in order to separate out events and changes in location or time. They are used like chapters.
It depends on the poem and the author’s intent. Some poems only have a few cantos, while others have thirty or more.
Related Literary Terms
- Epic Poetry: a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.
- Narrative: contain all the elements of a story and are normally longer than average.
- Epic Simile: a long poetic comparison, that uses like or as, and which goes on for several lines. It grows more complicated and reveals its meaning as the lines progress.
- Canto: a subsection of a long narrative or epic poem. It is made up of at least five lines but it is normally much longer.