Elma Mitchell was born in Airdrie, Lanarkshire, which remained her home until 1941, though she boarded at school in England and then went to Somerville College, Oxford.
After Oxford she took a diploma in librarianship at University College London, and worked as a librarian for the BBC. She became fluent in several languages, including Russian, and found work as a freelance writer and translator, things she could do from the heart of the country – she moved to Somerset in 1961 to live with friends.
Elma Mitchell read and wrote poetry from childhood, but did not publish until the late 1960s, when a few pieces appeared in magazines and anthologies. Her poem ‘Thoughts After Ruskin’ was included in the 1967 PEN anthology; this ‘devastatingly original’ poem – in the words of her future publisher, Harry Chambers – went on to win prizes and be frequently anthologised. It has become by far her best known poem, but unsentimental, compassionate insight into the human condition features in all her work.