Dante's Inferno Questions and Answers
by Dante Alighieri

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What does "canto" mean?

The term "canto" refers to a separation of a long-narrative or epic poem into sections, making it easier for readers to comprehend the meaning of each portion of the poem. The idea is to create thematic unity by enabling readers to analyze sections of the poem individually, eliminating confusion.

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The generally accepted understanding of "canto" is that it's a single unit in the separation of a poem into sections. The word is derived from the Latin word cantus, meaning “song,” and subsequently from the Italian language literally meaning “I sing.” Usually reserved for long narrative poems, the concept was originally used to divide epic poetry into parts that could be sung by minstrels as they traveled from place to place during the Renaissance period in Europe. Applied to poetry, the term is similar to chapters of a novel.

In the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, the poet uses cantos for the purpose of shortening portions of his narrative to make it easier for readers to comprehend the multiple themes advanced in his epic. Dante’s famous work is divided into three major parts: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Each of these parts is lengthy, so Dante further subdivides them into cantos to make it easier for the reader to follow the action of his narrative. For example, the Inferno, which is the author’s vision of hell, is broken into thirty-four cantos, each explaining a theme or moving the action forward for the reader. Within these subdivisions the term canto is given a dual meaning. The first use of the word is closely akin to a separate chapter, such as in Canto I. However, each of the thirty-four cantos contains separate stanzas, also considered cantos.

For example, in canto 1 of the Inferno, there are eight stanzas. In the first of these subdivisions, Dante describes how the traveler becomes lost in the forest and afraid before he encounters the spirit of Virgil:

IN the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e'en to tell,
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth,
Which to remember only, my dismay
Renews, in bitterness not far from death.
Yet, to discourse of what there good befel,
All else will I relate discover'd there.
How first I enter'd it I scarce can say,
Such sleepy dullness in that instant weigh'd
My senses down, when the true path I left;
But when a mountain's foot I reach'd, where clos'd
The valley that had pierc'd my heart with dread,
I look'd aloft, and saw his shoulders broad
Already vested with that planet's beam,
Who leads all wanderers safe through every way.

This canto introduces the reader to the protagonist’s initial problem as he approaches the entrance to hell and gives the reader the sense of emotion the traveler experiences along the way. The canto sets the scene and the tone in order to make the following sections more easily understood. In a long narrative poem like the Divine Comedy, failure to allow readers to analyze each section or theme in separate chunks leads to confusion as the dense language of the lengthy work fuses together and becomes overwhelming.

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