Definition of Canto
A canto is a section or chapter within an extended poetic work that is divided into multiple parts. Cantos allow lengthy poems, especially those considered epic in nature, to be organized cohesively and broken into more manageable portions for readers. Famous epic poems like Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Cantos by Ezra Pound are divided into cantos that may vary in length but provide a framework to transition between different stages of the narrative or themes.
Each canto acts as a self-contained unit that can stand independently while still advancing the overall story or concept of the larger poem. They create a pause at the end, much like a chapter break in a novel, before proceeding to the next canto. This structure device helps elaborate complex ideas or plotlines across an entire poem through a segmented approach. Cantos thus allow epic subjects to be systematically explored over many sections within a single long-form composition.
History of Cantos
The use of cantos to structure long poems can be traced back to medieval Italian poetry from the 12th to 14th centuries. One of the most famous works that utilized cantos was Dante Alighieri’s epic poem “The Divine Comedy” from this period. Dante divided his poem into three sections, i.e. Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Each section consists of 33 cantos for a total of 100 cantos. This set a precedent for using cantos as a way to organize lengthy narrative poems into more manageable and episodic portions.
The tradition continued in the 16th century with Ludovico Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso,” which contained 40 cantos. In modern times, American poet Ezra Pound revived the form in the early 20th century with his experimental work “The Cantos,” spanning over 800 cantos. Other modernist poets like T.S. Eliot and Marianne Moore also employed cantos. Today, cantos remain a structural device principally employed in epic poetry to divide complex storylines or ideas into distinct and numbered sections that allow elaborate poems to be comprehended more easily by readers.
Examples of Cantos in Poetry
Here are a few examples of cantos from famous poems:
“Divine Comedy” by Dante
“Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
The canto sets up the allegorical journey that Dante will embark on through hell, purgatory and paradise with Virgil as his guide. Specifically, it occurs at a pivotal mid-point in Dante’s life. He is halfway through his lifespan around 35 years old. At this moment, he finds himself lost in a dark wood. The ‘forest dark’ has been used to symbolize his spiritual confusion and inability to see clearly. The ‘straightforward pathway’ that has been lost is the righteous path in life. Dante has lost his way both literally and figuratively.
This opening line immediately plunges the reader into a sense of disorientation and darkness. It establishes the theme of a journey from darkness into light and from sin to salvation.
“Cantos” by Ezra Pound
“And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea,
and We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also heavy with weeping…”
In the excerpt, the writer is directly quoting from Homer’s Odyssey specifically the part where Odysseus is setting sail after the Trojan War. He uses this excerpt from an epic precursor. Pound establishes the wide-ranging and fragmentary nature of the Cantos from the very beginning. He is collaging snippets from history, literature and his own observations into a non-linear work. The specific quote describes Odysseus preparing his ship for the journey home. The words ‘Set keel to breakers’ refers to guiding the ship past the crashing waves. Moreover, the ‘Swart ship’ means black-hulled ship. They load sheep and their weeping bodies and heavy with the sorrow of parting.
“The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot
“April is the cruellest month,
breeding Lilacs out of the dead land,
mixing Memory and desire,
stirring Dull roots with spring rain.”
The poem sets the melancholy and disillusioned tone for the entire poem. The poet while calling April ‘the cruellest month‘ evokes the cruelty of rebirth and renewal. The new life springs from the ‘dead land’, which is represented by the lilacs blooming, but this only mixes ‘Memory and desire’. The past cannot be escaped. The “dead land” refers to the barren emotional state of post-World War-I. Eliot captures a sense of despair, of trying to stir life from something lifeless. The “dull roots” are the stagnant souls of humanity.
The use of spring imagery and the mixing of memory and nature sets up key recurring themes, the inability to escape the past and the disconnect between surface beauty and inner barrenness. It’s a masterful canto that pulls the reader in with intriguing paradox and symbolism.
“Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer
“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;”
The canto describes the transition from the dryness of March into the sweet showers of April. Through this description of nature’s seasonal change, Chaucer establishes the time and place of the pilgrimage. He vividly depicts how April’s “shoures soote” have pierced the drought of March down to the roots and bathed each vein of plant in nourishing liquid. This moisture allows the virtue/power within to generate the flowers. The opening canto perfectly sets the stage for the framed narrative by establishing the season, place and poetic style of the Canterbury Tales.
“Don Juan” by Lord Byron
“I can’t refuse you anything I ought;
Now tell me what you wish,
and I’ll do ought.
Juan, do you not think it would be wrong?”
In the section, Donna Julia is expressing her growing affection for the protagonist Juan. She tells him “I can’t refuse you anything I ought”, showing her willingness to compromise herself for him. She then asks “Now tell me what you wish” seeking some signal of his interest in return. Juan hesitates, questioning if pursuing something romantic would be “wrong” given their social positions. The poet uses this exchange to subtly critique the norms of aristocratic relationships.
The canto continues developing the central plot of Juan’s romantic entanglement with Donna Julia, which advances the narrative from their initial meeting. At the same time, it satirizes the artifice involved in courtly relationships between unequal’s.
Function of Canto in Poetry
Cantos serve vital structural and narrative purposes in lengthy poetic works such as epics. They divide the content into logically segmented chapters that each advance the overarching plotline. Cantos present new events and developments to propel the story forward. This keeps readers engaged throughout the full narrative. They allow poets to vary the tone, style, themes and forms between sections to maintain reader interest.
Cantos build suspense by ending on cliffhangers and provide space to reflect on themes or comment on societal issues. The canto form gives the content an episodic quality similar to novels or television, while also offering organizational scaffolding for poets and readers to comprehend the overall architecture of the lengthy piece. In epic poems, cantos are crucial to sustaining readers through complex, extended poetic narratives by balancing plot advancement, engagement techniques and structural clarity.
Here are the three terms related to canto in more detail:
A canto will usually contain multiple stanzas grouped together. The stanza is the basic building block that makes up a canto. It is a poetic form consisting of lines arranged according to a specific pattern of meter, rhyme and number of lines. For example, an Italian sonnet has two quatrains followed by two tercets in iambic pentameter. Cantos allow poets to structure their narrative-driving content into an arrangement of these consistent stanza forms.
Each individual canto moves the overall story forward. The full poem tells a narrative or main story made up of plot points, events in order, how one event leads to another and how characters change over time. The narrative spans the entire multi-canto poem. While each canto can stand on its own like an episode, together they work interdependently to build up and drive the narrative from start to finish. One canto advances the narrative a little more, and then the next canto picks up from there and moves it further. In this way, the story unfolds incrementally with each new canto, even as the individual cantos feel independent from each other too.
In addition to advancing narrative elements, cantos often reflect upon or introduce recurring ideas, concepts and topics that develop or are referred to again later on. These themes aim to add layers of commentary and analysis that connect the content and events across multiple cantos. Imagery, symbols and motifs are employed by the poet to represent overarching themes which are then traced as they evolve or take on new meanings with each successive canto. This thematic structure helps provide coherence and perspective to the epic scale of the work.