Pound wrote these cantos while he was incarcerated at St. Elizabeth's Hospital for Mental Health in Washington, D.C. The first canto is called Rock Drill, and Pound relied on two main sources for information: Confucius's Classic of History and Senator Thomas Hart Benton's Thirty Years View: Or A History of the American Government for Thirty Years From 1820–1850, which covers the bank wars.
The first canto contains a number of Chinese characters and Latin phrases, as well as some Greek language. The foreign language sections generally espouse Confucian ideals of good government and the natural world. In Cantos LXXXVI and LXXXVII, Pound continues to discuss good government, rulers, leaders, and lawmakers, as well as economics and usury. Canto LXXXVIII focuses on John Randolph of Roanoke and the campaign against the Bank of the United States. In Canto LXXXIX, Pound continues to present examples of good rule.
In Canto XC, Pound switches to a discussion of myths and love, both divine and sexual. He includes the sacred fountain of Castilla on Parnassus as an image of sexual love. The canto closes with an account of sexual love between gods and humans in a paradisiacal world. Pound continues this theme in the following canto, which opens with an example of "clear song." The central image in this canto is Ra-Set, a fictional deity of the sun and the moon.
At the end of this canto, Pound returns to the Odyssey, recounting the story of the winds breaking up Odysseus's raft, after which a nymph offers him a veil to carry him to shore. Canto XCII opens with an image of seeds being distributed from a sacred mountain, centering on the relationship between nature and the divine. Canto XCIII includes examples of benevolent acts by public figures who represent the quote, "a man's paradise is his good nature." In Canto XCIV, Pound discusses forgotten Dutch Revolution leader Hendrik van Brederode. Canto XCV opens with the word "LOVE" in capital letters and explores certain relationships between love, light, and politics.
Pound also wrote Thrones, the second of these cantos, while he was in St. Elizabeth's. Pound described Thrones as "an attempt to move out from egoism and to establish some definition of an order possible or at any rate conceivable on Earth." Canto XCVI contains a summary of the decline of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Byzantine Empire, the Carolingian Empire, the Germanic Kingdoms, and the Lombards.
Canto XCVI includes a detailed passage on the Book of the Prefect, a 9th Century edict of Emperor Leo VI the Wise that lays out the rules of governance for the Byzantium Guild System. In Canto XCVII, Pound draws on Alexander del Mar's History of Monetary Systems, and XCVII focuses on Emperor K'ang Hsi's Sacred Edict. Throughout these Cantos, there are many images of goddesses, light, and divine creation.
Pound based Canto XCIX on K'ang Hsi's son Iong Cheng's commentary on his father's maxims. He also discusses the harmony between human society and the natural order. Odysseus makes a reappearance in this canto as well, now that the veil has helped him to reach the shore. Pound centered Canto CI on the Greek phrase meaning "the beautiful and good," as well as the moral aspect of beauty. It ends with a passage about Byzantium and the decline of the Western Empire.
CIII and CIV also examine the relationship between war, money, and government. In CV, Pound uses St. Anselm of Canterbury's writings, which emphasize the role of reason in religion and envision the divine essence as light. Canto CVI returns to a description of the goddess and her many roles. Demeter and Persephone are symbols of fertility, Selena, Helen, and Aphrodite symbolize the moon and love, and Athene and Diana are hunters. In Cantos CVII through CIX, Pound lifts details from Sir Edward Coke (an English jurist)'s study of English law.
Pound was only able to complete a few more cantos after his doctors declared him incurably insane and incapable of standing trial. He intended to write a final section of "Paradise Cantos" based on his paradisiacal vision. Other themes also permeate this section, such as a sense of artistic failure, jealousy, and hatred. Later, Pound goes on to recognize his indebtedness to his genetic and cultural ancestors. Canto CXVI was the very last canto that Pound was able to write. In this canto, Pound's Odysseus figure is home at last, and has reconciled with the Sea God. After his return, though, Odysseys finds that is home is different than what he remembers.
While Pound was writing the closing sections of this monumental work, his sanity was slowly slipping away. He wrote the Pisan Cantos while he was imprisoned in Italy. In the later portion of his career, Pound started to to feel increasingly like a failure. His feelings of inadequacy are evident these last sections, in particular, the following passage from Canto CXVI:
I have brought the great ball of crystal;
Who can lift it?
Can you enter the great acorn of light?
But the beauty is not the madness
Tho' my errors and wrecks lie about me.
And I am not a demigod,
I cannot make it cohere.
This is a possible allusion to Pound's feelings of failure. In The Cantos, he attempts to connect history to the present, as well as paint symbols of light, nature, beauty, and gods. At the end, though, Pound realizes that he has not succeeded in creating this cohesion. He also recognizes that his failure was inevitable: he feels that the task of creating cohesion within the vast universe will elude any human being.
Pound uses images of light even more frequently in these final cantos. He explores the concept of light and the opposition between darkness and light. In his work, light represents a number of things: divinity, the artistic impulse, love, and good governance. He refers to the light of the sun and the moon. He commonly associates the moon with creativity, and he uses the sun as a symbol of political and social activity.
Throughout The Cantos, Pound reveals his feelings of kinship with Odysseus. The poem starts with Odysseus and his friends sailing off for Hades, and it closes with the end of his journey, when he returns to shore safely with the help of the nymph's veil. Pound uses Odysseus as a model for all the heroes and leaders he lauds throughout the cantos, most notably himself and John Adams.
Like Odysseus, Pound embarked on a journey to Europe with various goals in mind. He wanted to improve society's view on art and beauty, transform the world of literature, and aid the careers of other writers, among others. Though his journey was very different from Odysseus's, Pound certainly experienced his share of perils. In the end, Odysseus does not end up where he thought he was going to, just like Pound did. In The Cantos, Pound uses Odysseus as an extension himself, which reveals that the poet had a very large ego.
In the "Rock Drill Cantos," Pound explores a paradisiacal theme. His plan was always to conclude The Cantos with his musings about a vision of paradise, and he foreshadowed this at the end of "The Thrones Cantos" by quoting Dante's Paradiso. Pound's obsession with paradise was likely rooted in his idealistic view of beauty, society, and the natural world. He dedicated much of his life's work to criticizing society and trying to make it better for artists.
After his release from St. Elizabeth's, Pound returned to Europe and his vision for the final cantos disintegrated. While some elements of paradise are still present, these cantos are mostly filled with commentary on hatred and Pound's own failures. It is possible that Pound finally accepted that his version of paradise was impossible, if he hadn't already, or perhaps his descent deeper into insanity drove paradise farther from his mind.