John Gillespie Magee Jr was a fighter pilot with the Royal Canadian Airforce in WWII. He was killed in 1941 in an accidental mid-air collision in England.
His parents (father American, mother British) were missionaries and John was born in China. It was at Rugby School that he first decided he wanted to be a poet (he admired an ex-Rugby pupil, poet Rupert Brooke). Because America did not immediately enter the war, Magee enlisted with a Canadian unit and became part of an air squadron. In August, 1941, he flew his spitfire to 33,000 feet, which was his highest flight to date. It is thought that this is the flight which inspired his famous sonnet. He took part in air fights against the Germans, in convoy patrols, and in sorties to occupied France. He died on 11 December 1941. When his plane was hit, he bailed out, but was too low to earth for his parachute to have time to open. He was only 19 years of age. Magee was buried in Lincolnshire and some of the lines from his poem are engraved on the headstone. In September of that year, he had posted his sonnet to his parents, who had it reprinted in church bulletins. The original manuscript is today in the Library of Congress.
High Flight by John Magee
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 windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high unsurpassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
The poem has remained a favourite amongst aviators and also, interestingly, astronauts. It is the official poem of the Royal Canadian Airforce and also of the Royal Airforce, and it has to be recited from memory by cadets at the US Airforce Academy. Lines from the poem appear on many headstones at Arlington National Cemetery and it is inscribed on the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial.