High flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I have trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr

John Gillespie Magee, Jr. (9 June 1922 – 11 December 1941) was an American aviator and poet during World War II. He was serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force, which he joined before the United States officially entered the war. He is most famous for his poem “High Flight”.  

Magee enclosed the poem on the back of a letter to his parents.

Magee was killed at the age of 19, while flying Spitfire VZ-H, serial number AD-291.

Part of the official letter to his parents read: “Your son’s funeral took place at Scopwick Cemetery, near Digby Aerodrome, at 2:30 P.M. on Saturday, 13 December 1941, the service being conducted by Flight Lieutenant S. K. Belton, the Canadian padre of this Station. He was accorded full Service Honours, the coffin being carried by pilots of his own Squadron.”

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4 responses to “High flight

  • Amy Scott

    This is a truly beautiful poem. Of course I am familiar with it – especially the phrase about “slipping the surly bonds of earth.” I feel like this poem may have been quoted in relation to shuttle take-offs – am I just imagining this? And yet, I have never read the poem itself in its entirety. I cannot believe he died at age 19. Had he lived, he would have perhaps proven a significant literary talent.

    Do you know at what point in his life this poem was written? It describes the sky as a sacred place and the act of flying as divine. This is compelling if he wrote this poem in the midst of taking part in battles. Yet, if he wrote this before entering the war then it is also poignant in its idealism.

  • High flight (via Place to land) « Calgary Recreational and Ultralight Flying Club (CRUFC)

    […] Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there, I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung My eager craft through footless halls of air…. Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue I’ve topped the wind … Read More […]

  • Angels 14

    It is a beautiful poem.

    It was written while he was in active service. The USA had not yet joined the war and was officially neutral, which is why he slipped into Canada and enlisted with the RCAF.

    Magee was born in Shanghai, China, to an American father and a British mother who were working as Anglican missionaries. He won his school’s poetry cup and secured a place at Yale- which is how he found himself in America at the outbreak of the War.

    He was 18 years old when he entered flight training. Within the year, he was sent to England and posted to the newly formed No 412 Fighter Squadron, RCAF, which was activated on 30 June 1941. He flew the Supermarine Spitfire.

    Flying fighter sweeps over France and air defense over England against the German Luftwaffe, he rose to the rank of Pilot Officer.

    On 3 September 1941, Magee flew a high altitude (30,000 feet) test flight in a newer model of the Spitfire V. As he orbited and climbed upward, he was struck with the inspiration of a poem — “To touch the face of God.”

    Once back on the ground, he wrote a letter to his parents. In it he commented, “I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed.” On the back of the letter, he jotted down his poem, ‘High Flight.’

    Just three months later, on 11 December 1941 (and only three days after the US entered the war) he was killed. The Spitfire V he was flying, VZ-H, collided with an Oxford Trainer from Cranwell Airfield flown by one Ernest Aubrey. At the enquiry a farmer testified that he saw the Spitfire pilot struggle to push back the canopy. The pilot, he said, finally stood up to jump from the plane. John, however, was too close to the ground for his parachute to open. He died instantly.

    You are perfectly correct in recalling the Space Shuttle- Reagan quoted from the poem when speaking about the Challenger disaster:

    “We shall never forget them nor the last time we saw them, as they prepared for their mission and waved good-bye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.”

    It now serves as the official poem of the Canadian Forces Air Command and Royal Air Force.

  • Angels 14

    Just found this interesting article:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/insideout/yorkslincs/series11/week7_poem_flying.shtml

    It suggests that the vivid imagery of the poem could have been caused by a lack of oxygen, or by something called the ‘Breakthrough Phenomenon’.

    This was only discovered in the 1950s and is often known as the Big Hand.This makes pilots feel remote from their aircraft, often imagining themselves looking down at themselves in the cockpit, with feelings of doom or overwhelming joy.

    The article also includes a link to actor Sam West giving a reading of the poem.

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