Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Memories of 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 nor even eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.


The poem “High Flight” by RCAF Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr. is a familiar one to those of us old enough to remember when TV stations signed off at midnight. The poem was recited as jet fighters swirled through the sky. But it goes back even further for me. I carried a copy of it when I was an Aviation Cadet in the Army Air Forces during the latter part of World War II.

I can’t remember exactly where I got it, though I think it was in something my mother sent me. I had dreamed of flying since early childhood, and that poem was a real inspiration. I never realized my dream, as the need for pilots became less and less with our success in the air war. I was discharged as an Aviation Cadet about three months after the war ended.

The poem always fascinated me, though, especially after it began showing up on nightly TV. When I ran a trade association back in the 70s and 80s, I used the movie version with the Air Force fighters at conventions.

I hadn’t thought of “High Flight” in a long time until I read Pat Browning’s weekend posts about the downing of a B-26 in Wales in 1943. I looked up the poem in Wikipedia and learned a lot about the young poet pilot and how his verse has spread over the years.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr. was born in Shanghai, China, in 1922, the son of an American Episcopal priest and a British mother. He attended school in England and the U.S., winning Rugby School’s Poetry Prize in 1938. He earned a scholarship to Yale University in July of 1940 but spurned it to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force. After receiving his wings in July 1941, he shipped out to a unit in RAF Llandow, Wales to train in the Supermarine Spitfire.

Assigned to the 412th Fighter Squadron at RAF Digby, he flew fighter sweeps over France and air defense missions over England against the German Lufwaffe. On Sept. 3, 1941, while on a high altitude test flight of a newer model Spitfire V, he received the inspiration “to touch the face of God.” He composed the verse soon after landing and wrote it on the back of a letter to his parents.

A few months later, on Dec. 11, 1941, three days after the U.S. entered the war, Magee died when his Spitfire collided with a training plane in clouds while descending near his base. At the age of 19, he was buried at Holy Cross, Scopwick Cemetery in Lincolnshire, England.

According to Wikipedia, “High Flight” is the official poem of the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Air Force, and it is required to be recited from memory by first year cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Passages from the poem have been quoted in many books. John Denver adapted it and put it to music in his 1983 album It’s About Time. Parts of it have been used in movies and a TV series, and President Reagan quoted from the poem in a speech following the Challenger disaster.

I still get goose bumps reading the vivid imagery in the verse.

6 comments:

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

It's a beautiful poem...and one I haven't heard for a while. I think I'm remembering that it was used during the memorial service after the space shuttle disaster in the 80s? I know I've heard it before, but can't remember when.

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

Mark W. Danielson said...

"High Flight" holds a special place in every aviator's heart. The US Air Force gives each of its new pilots a copy of this poem along with their silver wings. No poem better describes a pilot's bond with God. I feel it every time I take to the sky.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Fascinating story and lovely poem, Mark. I can understand why it means so much to anyone who pilots a plane.

Beth Terrell said...

Chester, I love this poem. When I was a child, it used to come on TV, and I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever heard.

Ray Haas said...

It IS a beautiful poem. I came across your post in my regular Internet scans for all things related to High Flight and its author, John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

I am in the process of developing a movie based on the life of Magee. I have done nearly 20 years of research into Magee's life.

To answer Elizabeth: President Reagan quoted two lines from High Flight during his speech to the nation after the Challenger disaster. Turns out that Reagan had heard the poem before; it was recited by the actor Tyrone Power after Power (a WWII Marine fighter pilot) had returned from the Pacific.

You are welcome to visit my website for more information on Magee and High Flight: www.highflightproductions.com

Pat Browning said...

I love this poem. First heard it in the early '70s when I was working in a law office. A client who was a cropduster crashed his plane and the poem was read at his funeral. It seemed so fitting for the kind of guy he was and I've loved the poem ever since.
Pat Browning