Guide to Literary Terms

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What is the definition of canto?

The definition of a canto isĀ one of the main sections into which a long poem is divided.

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Last Updated May 26, 2023.

In literary terms, a canto refers to a major division within a long poem or an epic. It is often used to structure and organize lengthy works, such as Dante's Divine Comedy or Lord Byron's Don Juan. A canto is typically a self-contained section that contributes to the overall narrative or theme of the poem.

Canto derives from the Latin word cantus, meaning "song," from canere, meaning "to sing."

The Divine Comedy is divided into three sections, entitled Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, each of which contains 33 cantos (though there is an extra canto in Inferno that functions as an introduction to the text). The first English poem to use cantos was Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene.

Here's an example of a brief quote from the first canto of Dante Alighieri's "Inferno" from "The Divine Comedy:"

"Midway upon the journey of our life

I found myself within a forest dark,

For the straightforward pathway had been lost."

In these lines, Dante sets the stage for his descent into Hell, describing his journey through life and the moment he finds himself in a dark forest, symbolizing a state of confusion and spiritual crisis. This brief quote captures the essence of the first canto and introduces the reader to the larger narrative of the "Inferno."

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