Sophie Jewett, also known as Ellen Burroughs, was born in June of 1861 in Moravia, New York. Her father was a country doctor, and she was one of four children born to her parents. She showed an early interest in reading, in her parent’s country cottage, but due to problems with her eyesight, was unable to manage it for long. Her life began with tragedy when at seven years old her mother died in front of the young girl. Her father, who often took her with him on long trips to make house calls, passed away as well only two years later.
Jewett’s care fell to her uncle, Daniel Burroughs and a grandmother. The children relocated to Buffalo, New York where they spent most of their childhood. Unfortunately, her new caretakers died while Jewett was still young. From that point on she was cared for by her minister, Reverence Wolcott Calkins, whose daughter was Jewett’s close friend. It was through her new family that she first became interested in literature.
She spent a period of time traveling throughout Europe, visiting England and Italy, and used her experiences to inform and inspire her later writings. Her first works appeared in The Outlook and Scribner’s Magazine. When she first began publishing she wrote under the pseudonym Ellen Burroughs. The last name from the family who took her in, and the first, her mother’s maiden name.
Her first full volume, published under her own name, was The Pilgrim, and Other Poems. It was released in 1896 and contained writings in a variety of poetic forms including sonnets and ballads. While Jewett was writing poetry she also spent time working on translations from Middle English. She went on to publish a number of translated European ballads from a variety of languages. These translations were published after Jewett’s death.
Later Life and Death
In 1889, Jewett began a career teaching English at Wellesley College and she became an associate professor in 1897. In 1901 she published an introduction to Tennyson’s The Holy Grail and then in 1905 the Wellesley College Department published a collection, Persephone and Other Poems. Only a few years later, after a short illness, Jewett died in her brother’s house in Buffalo, New York in 1909.
While relatively unknown today, “If Spirits Walk,” “A Friendship,” and “The Dwarf’s Quest,” are among her most commonly referenced poems.