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’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
– John Gillespie Magee (1922-41)
by Mary Boren
The poem appeals on too many levels to measure.
First, there is the hook of a universal topic that tugs at the emotions of every human. Who doesn’t yearn to “dance the skies” and do a hundred other things we have not dreamed of? Every line of this timeless near-Shakespearean sonnet is packed with incisive imagery that transcends language.
Add to that the poignant backstory of a handsome, personable young American pilot, born in China, educated in England, bound for Yale on a scholarship before deciding to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force at the beginning of World War II. Three short months after these ecstatic words poured onto the back of a letter to his parents, John Gillespie Magee, Jr.’s Spitfire collided with an Oxford trainer flown by Ernest Aubrey Griffin, and both men were killed. Why will one name and not the other be remembered throughout history? Solely because of a single unforgettable poem.
I encourage you to explore the links below, especially this one, which includes reminiscences from his brother, for details about the life of the author, origin and almost immediate publication of the poem. From capturing the heart of a troubled world in 1941 to soothing the troubled spirit of a shocked world in 1986, when U. S. President Reagan quoted it in his address following the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, it has stood as the definitive hymn of praise for every aspect of aviation.
What’s more, it serves as a prime example of poetic proficiency. When I first studied “High Flight” in 1995, I didn’t know an enjambment from an encampment, assonance from incontinence, or have a clue in identifying more than a handful of the many effective devices known to skilled poets; I only knew that I loved everything about the sound and feel of it. What a brilliant sonic stroke with the darkly resonant “surly bonds of earth” to evoke a sense of despondency, only to quickly soar into the buoyant sibilance of “laughter-silvered wings” and “sun-split clouds.” Making it look easy! Without a wasted syllable, momentum grows with joyful leaps toward a wholly triumphant, powerful conclusion. Unobtrusive internal rhymes and impeccable meter in league with smoothly enjambed lines allow for an accomplished reader, such as the voice in the video above (unidentified but sounds like William Conrad), to give the drama its due without a hint of singsong delivery. This lends further credence to Wordsworth’s observation that “to have great poetry, there must be great audiences.”
In other words, what Magee would later refer to as a “ditty” was undeniably a highly polished piece of writing that arrived fully developed, a phenomenal achievement for one so young. If not divine inspiration, then John Gillespie Magee, Jr. clearly had the makings of a world class poet. What might we be saying about him now if he had lived beyond the age of 19?
Library of Congress
Bomber Command Museum