Born 19 March 1919, Coonoor, India
Daughter of Robert S. and Dorothy Dean Sewell; married Anthony Sirignano, 1971
Elizabeth Sewell's parents were English, and they sent her to England as a child to be educated. She received her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees at Newham College, Cambridge. Sewell became an American citizen in 1972 and has taught at several American colleges, including Fordham University, Hunter College and Notre Dame University. Her scholarship extends to literature, philosophy, religion, language theory, botany, and biology. In her writing, Sewell has concentrated upon theories and methods that attempt to integrate the sciences and the humanities.
The Structure of Poetry (1951), an inquiry into the stasis and dynamics of poetry, shows Sewell's early interest in ideas developed in later works. In The Field of Nonsense (1952), Sewell uses works of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear to define "nonsense" as a carefully controlled world directed by reason and subject to its own laws, rather than a merely random reversal of ordinary experience. The Orphic Voice (1960) has gained Sewell recognition as an original and important voice in modern theory and criticism. Sewell claims that because of his having been in the worlds of the living and the dead, the figure of Orpheus has been used from ancient times to the present as a symbol of the combined creative forces of mind and body. Sewell supports her theory through detailed and convincing illustrations from the works of many poets, philosophers, and scientists.
In The Human Metaphor (1964), Sewell further investigates what she sees as the prevailing empirical method of western thought in the post-Cartesian world. Sewell acknowledges the importance of empiricism, but believes it leads to a split in the human mind and society when it excludes the validity of other modes of thought. Through examples from many major poets, Sewell develops a theory that the metaphoric properties of language can bring apparently divergent methods into meaningful synthesis.
In Sewell's first novel, The Dividing of Time (1951), her young heroine lives in two worlds at the same time: the drab world of the civil servant in wartime London and a realm of adventures in lands of fantasy. The two are interwoven, and the "dividing" actually leads to integration of the narrator's personality as she gradually loses her fears and comes to know herself.
Sewell's two later novels lack the imagination and intensity of the first. In The Singular Hope (1955), set in a school hospital for crippled children in England, the young heroine is also going through a process of increasing self-awareness, but the book remains rather flat and colorless. In Now Bless Thyself (1962), characters and action are never fully realized; they serve primarily as vehicles for political, aesthetic, and philosophical discussions.
In her two volumes of poetry, Sewell is especially effective in short lyrics such as "The Oracle," "Job," and "Archangels in Winter," which testify to her fine eye for detail. Several of her longer poems such as "The Great Darkness" sustain a dramatic intensity. "Dialogue," the opening poem of Signs and Cities (1968) is a fine expression of Sewell's attitude toward art and science; and the final poem of the volume, "Achievement," makes a moving and affirmative statement of Sewell's philosophy of life.
Paul Valéry: The Mind in the Mirror (1952). Poems: 1974-1961 (1962
Ladner, B., "Elizabeth Sewell: Poetic Method as an Instrument of Thinking and Knowing" (dissertation, 1970).
Nation (4 Feb. 1961). Soundings (Summer 1972). TLS (17 Oct. 1951, 29 April 1955).
—ANNE R. NEWMAN