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The word “canzone” means “song” in Italian and first used to refer to a verse form in Italy and France in the medieval period.

It is often considered to be a predecessor to the sonnet, but unfortunately, since its peak popularity, it has fallen out of fashion. At the time, writers such as Petrarch and Dante utilized variations. There are a few poets, some of which are contemporary, who have utilized the form. These include W.H. Auden, James Merrill, and Ezra Pound.


Form and Structure

The canzone, sometimes also known as a canzona, is a 16th-17th century Italian verse form that is made up of somewhere between one and seven stanzas, each of which is of a similar length. Usually, there are eight to twenty lines per stanza and 10-11 syllables per line. In some variations of the verse form, the poet makes use of keywords rather than a traditional rhyme scheme. Often times the verse form is compared to a madrigal or a sestina. These keywords, which vary from poem to poem, are crucial to the overall structure and are intimately connected to the larger themes of the work, whatever they may be.

The canzone comes in four different forms or sentiments. The first of these is the “elegiac” canzone which contains elements of an elegy, or lament for the past, or someone deceased. Comic, tragic, and romantic are the other three most common ways the canzone is categorized.


Example of a Canzone

Let’s take a look at the first stanza from W.H. Auden’s ‘Canzone”.

When shall we learn, what should be clear as day,

We cannot choose what we are free to love?

Although the mouse we banished yesterday

Is an enraged rhinoceros today,

Our value is more threatened than we know:

Shabby objections to our present day

Go snooping round its outskirts; night and day

Faces, orations, battles, bait our will

As questionable forms and noises will;

Whole phyla of resentments every day

Give status to the wild men of the world

Who rule the absent-minded and this world.

‘Canzone’ by W.H. Auden speaks on the complications of human life and emotions, as well as time and death. The poem contains five sets of twelve-line stanzas, and one final five-line stanza, known as a cinquain. From just this small section a reader should be able to pick out the keywords Auden chose to repeat. They are “day”, love”, “know”, “will” and “world”. With just these five words at the end of the lines, a reader can interpret something about the poem’s content before even making it through the first stanza. The poet is going to be speaking on life, love, and the world. 

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