Sigurd Burckhardt was born on November 21, 1916, in Bielefeld, Germany. He received his secondary education at the Friedenauer Gymnasium, Berlin, from which he graduated in 1935. After absolving two years of compulsory military service, he emigrated to the United States. Burckhardt's family was relatively large and had long been working to earn enough money to send one of the children to America. When that sum had been accumulated, Sigurd seemed the most worthy recipient due to his scholarly inclinations and ambitious intellect. In the autumn of 1938, Burckhardt matriculated at the University of California at Berkeley, where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in German in 1940 and, after some interruptions of his graduate studies by employment in a war industry and as a high school teacher, received his Master of Arts degree in English in 1945.
Burckhardt was employed from 1947 to 1953 as an instructor and assistant professor at Saint Mary's College in California. In the autumn of 1953, he entered Ohio State University to resume his study of German language and literature while simultaneously teaching as an assistant instructor from 1953 to 1954 and as an instructor from 1954 to 1956. At practical odds with the "New Critics" such as Brooks and Leavis, Burckhardt straddled the ground between traditional scholarship and "close reading" methodology.
In 1963, Burckhardt left his position at Ohio State and became a professor at the University of California, San Diego. A posthumous collection of his essays on Shakespeare has been co-edited and published (1967-1968) under the title Shakespearean Meanings by Pearce and Elliott. His preferred form of writing was the long essay, and he claimed to be intimidated by the scale of the book-length study. Sigurd Burckhardt died on December 15, 1966.