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Literature Glossary

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Canto

Definition:

Can you imagine reading 1,248 pages? Yeah, we didn't think so. But how about 80-ish cantos? You may not even know what a canto is, but we bet that sounds more appealing.

Kind of like a novel has chapters, a long poem has cantos. It's that easy. Cantos are just a way to divide up the text.

Cantos are usually reserved for epic poems, those hefty suckers that date back to the pre-writing days. But the term "canto" (which means "song" in Italian) wasn't around for Homer and Virgil.

The term was popularized by Italian stallion Dante Alighieri who used them to chop up his Divine Comedy. But his cantos were more than just a way to divide up the text—they held some very special meaning. There were 33 cantos in each canticle (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso), plus one introductory canto in Inferno. You might know that the number 3 is pretty important in Christianity (as is 33) so you can imagine there's more to it than just breaking up a long, complex work.

Edmund Spenser was the first person to use the word in English. Edmund who, you ask? He's the one behind The Faerie Queene, all 1,248 pages of it, which he divided up with—you guessed it—cantos.