In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section W. B. Yeats

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Reference Works
  • Biographies
  • Poetry
  • The Abbey Theatre
  • Drama
  • Politics and Political Philosophy
  • The 19th Century and the Fin de Siècle
  • Modernism
  • Occultism
  • Folklore
  • Classicism and Byzantium
  • Women and Gender
  • Music
  • Visual Arts
  • Yeats in Contexts

British and Irish Literature W. B. Yeats
Lauren Arrington
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0063


William Butler Yeats (b. 1865–d. 1939) was a poet, playwright, theater director, spiritualist, and politician, and the scholarship based on his life and work matches the diversity of his pursuits. He is regarded as belonging to the Romantic and the Modernist traditions, as a defender of democracy and as a champion of fascism. These are two of the most controversial topics debated by some of the most eminent scholars in the humanities. Yet where academics have seen conflict and contradiction, Yeats himself found unity, and this search for Unity of Being is the subject of much of his autobiographical and esoteric writing. As he was one of the foremost writers of the 20th century and a key figure in the Irish Revival, criticism of his work tends to be divided between international and national contexts, both of which are fruitful avenues of inquiry and represented equally here. Most readers come to Yeats through his poetry, but he saw his work for the stage as equal to if not greater than his poetic enterprise. On winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, he surprised the committee with a speech, later published as “The Bounty of Sweden,” focused on his establishment of an Irish National Theatre. This bibliography aims to reflect the unity of Yeats’s vision while reflecting disagreements in critical appraisals. The topics outlined reflect the major areas of study at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and the sources have been selected on the basis of their usefulness for scholars at this level.

General Overviews

Howes and Kelly 2006 is the best place to begin the study of Yeats. It is comprised of introductory essays by eminent scholars on topics for which the scholars have published full-length studies. For example, Elizabeth Butler Cullingford’s essay on “Yeats and Gender” in Howes and Kelly 2006 is an overview of themes addressed in Cullingford 1993 (cited in Yeats and Women). Some of the essayists in Howes and Kelly 2006 have also contributed to Holdeman and Levitas 2010, which gives a more in-depth survey of major themes. Three guides to each genre—poetry, drama, and prose—are recommended here. Unterecker 1996 focuses exclusively on the poetry; although it covers much of the material included in Albright 1994 (cited in Poetry), it is more discursive and can be read independently or alongside the poems. Yeats’s plays, particularly the drama of the middle and late periods, have a reputation for being challenging and at times obscure. Taylor 1984 can also be read independently of the plays and provides an accessible overview of the major themes of the drama as a whole as well as concise critical appraisals of each play. Unterecker 1996 and Taylor 1984 are both foundational texts, ideal for readers approaching Yeats for the first time and seeking introductions that balance biography with other approaches to the literature. As Yeats’s prose fiction is generally studied by readers who have come to Yeats through the poetry or the drama, O’Donnell 1983 is slightly more advanced than Unterecker and Taylor but is nonetheless a good place to begin exploring themes in the prose that are addressed in further detail in the subject categories. Two scholarly journals have been devoted exclusively to Yeats. Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies contains specialized articles that may be useful for scholars researching a particular topic, poem, or play. It has not been electronically indexed and must be consulted in print. The Yeats Annual was founded in 1982 and is the leading journal of Yeats criticism.

  • Holdeman, David, and Ben Levitas, eds. W. B. Yeats in Context. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    Comprehensive volume divided into seven parts: Times, Places, Personalities, Themes, Philosophies, Arts, and Reception. “Themes” incorporates politics, “Class and Eugenics,” and “Fascism,” which are considered separately from “Philosophies,” which includes “Folklore” and “Nietzsche.” Important volume for understanding contexts outside the boundaries that Yeats set for his work, opening up lines for engagement with wider themes in 20th-century literature.

  • Howes, Marjorie, and John Kelly, eds. The Cambridge Companion to W. B. Yeats. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521650895

    Essays on major topics in Yeats criticism, from Romanticism and Modernism to gender and politics. Howes’s introduction addresses dialecticism and continuity in Yeats’s work and gives a summary of his career. Includes basic chronology of life and work. The most useful starting point for readers new to Yeats criticism.

  • O’Donnell, William. A Guide to the Prose Fiction of W. B. Yeats. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research, 1983.

    Chronological analysis of short stories and novels (John Sherman and The Speckled Bird) written between 1887 and 1905. Emphasis on material motivation for turning to prose fiction as an alternative to journalism. Also an emphasis on supernatural themes. Argues against reading John Sherman as early evidence of the philosophy of man and mask (see Ellmann 1988, cited under Biographies).

  • Taylor, Richard. A Reader’s Guide to the Plays of W. B. Yeats. London: Macmillan, 1984.

    Introduction provides concise overview of major themes in the drama: ritual, magic, the mask, the idea of tragedy, and the relationship of image, symbol, and style. Plays are grouped according to early, middle, and late periods, emphasizing the formal experiments of the middle period. Provides synopsis and critical gloss of each play.

  • Unterecker, John. A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

    First published in 1959, the Guide is intended to be read alongside the Collected Poems. The first chapter gives an overview of important persons, themes, and symbols in Yeats’s poetry. Each subsequent chapter is devoted to a volume of poems and discusses major revisions and the evolution of themes and symbols. Also provides close readings.

  • Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies.

    Important series containing articles, notes, and editions from leading Yeats scholars of the 1980s and 1990s. Articles not indexed electronically, so the print version of journal must be consulted. Published under the editorship of Richard Finneran by Cornell University Press (1983–1986) and then by UMI Research Press (1986–1999).

  • Yeats Annual.

    Regarded as the leading journal for Yeats criticism. Includes articles as well as notes on texts and editions. Increasingly comprised of special numbers devoted to a single topic, such as “Poems and Contexts” or “Influence and Confluence,” often with guest editors. Published by Humanities Press and Palgrave Macmillan since 1982 under the editorship of Warwick Gould. Articles are indexed in the Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature, which is available only to subscribers. Issues also available for purchase from Palgrave Macmillan.

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