A canto is a subsection of a long narrative or epic poem. It is made up of at least five lines but it normally much longer. These sections take the form or poetic chapters and allow the writer to divide a poem into easier to read and comprehend sections.
The term was defined by Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1911 as “a convenient division when poetry was more usually sung by the minstrel to his own accompaniment than read”. The word “canto” means “song” in Italian but the first examples of cantos date back to the time of Homer when epics were recited orally. It is for epic poems such as Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Iliad’ that cantos are used. These poems can reach thousands of lines and even thousands of pages. Cantos do not follow a specific form or pattern of construction. They range in style and length.
History of Cantos
Dante Alighieri, the famous author of ‘The Divine Comedy’ popularized the term “canto”. He used them within ‘The Divine Comedy’ and its various sections, “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” and “Paradiso”. In total, the epic has 100 cantos and is considered to be one of the world’s greatest works of literature. There are thirty-three cantos per section and then one extra introductory canto at the beginning of “Inferno”. The average length of a canto in this work is 142 lines.
In English, the word “canto” was first used in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. This epic poem is divided into six books (of which there were supposed to be twelve) and each of these is divided up into smaller cantos.
Other commonly cited examples of epic poems with cantos include ‘Don Juan’ by Lord Byron which has 17 cantos and Ezra Pound’s ‘Cantos’ which contains 116.
Examples of Cantos in Poetry
Example #1 The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
It was Edmund Spenser who first used the term “canto” in English. It is used in his epic, ‘The Faerie Queene’ which is now regarded as one of the finest pieces of English verse ever written. The cantos help to structure the poem, which is quite long, and allow the reader an easier way of reading it. The complex subject matter, language, and themes are often difficult to grasp and would be even more so if the poem were one continuous stanza rather than divided into Spenserian stanzas, cantos, and books. 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.
Example #2 Don Juan by Lord Byron
Don Juan’ is considered to be one of Byron’s best pieces of poetry. It is a long satiric poem that is based on the legend of Don Juan. Byron takes creative license with the story of Don Juan, turning him into a man who doesn’t seduce women but is seduced by them. Unfortunately, the final canto of ‘Don Juan’ went unfinished. Byron died before he could complete it. He did not leave any clues behind as to what was going to happen at the end of the poem. Here is the first stanza of “Canto the First:”
I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one;
Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,
I ‘ll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan—
We all have seen him, in the pantomime,
Sent to the devil somewhat ere his time.
These lines start out a description of Don Juan, his family, his home, and the relationships that exist in his life.
Example #3 The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
The cantos that are found in ‘The Divine Comedy’ and its three books are some of the best examples. It was Alighieri who first popularized the use of the word “canto”. Here are the famous first two stanzas of Inferno, Canto I:
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.
In comparison to some other cantos, those in ‘The Divine Comedy’ are of an average, if not shorter, length.