The controversy has intensified since 1940 when Pound's very public stance on the war in Europe and his support for Benito Mussolini's fascism became widely known.

Much critical discussion of the poem has focused on the relationship between, on the one hand, the economic thesis on usura, Pound's antisemitism, his adulation of Confucian ideals of government and his attitude towards fascism, and, on the other, passages of lyrical poetry and the historical scene-setting that he performed with his 'ideographic' technique. Elliot has drawn a parallel between Pound and Adolf Eichmann based on their antisemitism, while at the other Marjorie Perloff places Pound's antisemitism in a wider context by examining the political views of many of his contemporaries, arguing that "We have to try to understand why" antisemitism was widespread in the early twentieth century, "and not say let's get rid of Ezra Pound, who also happens to be one of the greatest poets of the 20th C." However, all of this is complicated by the fact that The Cantos themselves contain very little evidence of Pound's otherwise blatant antisemitism: in fact, in a close study of the poem, Wendy Stallard Flory concluded that it contained only seven passages of antisemitic sentiment in the 803 pages she read.

There is also wide geographical reference; Pound added to his earlier interests in the classical Mediterranean culture and East Asia selective topics from medieval and early modern Italy and Provence, the beginnings of the United States, England of the 17th century, and details from Africa he had obtained from Leo Frobenius. Pound initially believed that he possessed poetic and rhetorical techniques which would themselves generate significance, but as time passed he became more concerned with the messages he wished to convey.

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The Cantos was initially published in the form of separate sections, each containing several cantos that were numbered sequentially using Roman numerals (except cantos 85–109, first published with Arabic numerals).

The original publication dates for the groups of cantos are as given below.

Thus, although Pound indeed distrusted the masses, "foreigners," and so forth, The Cantos themselves (with their references to Confucius, the agrarian populism of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democracy, and even the "enlightened despotism" of Leopold II) reflect the underlying conservative sentiment behind his more well-known social and economic views (including his antisemitism.) The Cantos are not complex, they are complicated; they are not arrayed by logic or driven by pursuing emotion, they are connected because they follow one another, are set side by side, and because an anecdote, an allusion or a sentence begun in one Canto may be continued in another and may never be completed at all; and as for a theme to be realized, they seem to have only, like Mauberley, the general sense of continuity — not unity — which may arise in the mind when read seriatim.

The Cantos are what Mr Pound himself called them in a passage now excised from the canon, a rag-bag. Eliot had previously approached the subject of fragmentation of human experience: while Eliot was writing, and Pound editing, The Waste Land, Pound had said that he looked upon experience as similar to a series of iron filings on a mirror.

It is a book-length work, widely considered to be an intense and challenging read.

The Cantos is generally considered one of the most significant works of modernist poetry in the 20th century.Recourse to scholarly commentaries is almost inevitable for a close reader.The range of allusion to historical events is very broad, and abrupt changes occur with little transition.Critics like Hugh Kenner who take a more positive view of The Cantos have tended to follow this hint, seeing the poem as a poetic record of Pound's life and reading that sends out new branches as new needs arise with the final poem, like a tree, displaying a kind of unpredictable inevitability.[The letter columns ACB/ABC may indicate the sequences in which the concepts could be presented.] In the light of cantos written later than this letter, it would be possible to add other recurring motifs to this list, such as: periploi ('voyages around'); vegetation rituals such as the Eleusinian Mysteries; usura, banking and credit; and the drive towards clarity in art, such as the 'clear line' of Renaissance painting and the 'clear song' of the troubadours.This was reissued in paperback in 1986 with the addition of the Italian Cantos 72-73.