1 September 2022 Susannah

John Magee & High Flight

John Gillespie Magee Jr

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.

You can listen to the poem here:

or listen to John Denver singing it (with some lines added):

Did you enjoy this poem? Let me know by leaving a comment.

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Featured image credit- John Gillespie Magee Jr, Official Royal Canadian Air Force picture, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46690492
Body image credit- Magee’s manuscript of “High Flight”, mailed to his parents, signed and dated 3 September 1941. By John Gillespie Magee, Jr. – https://blogs.loc.gov/catbird/2013/09/john-gillespie-magees-high-flight/high-flight/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=113945315

Comments (18)

  1. Helen Gentle

    Thank you, Susannah. I have never come across this poem, but it touches me deeply as mum’s brother, at only 21, died in an aircrash over France in 1944. I never knew him. Brave, daring, young men.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh, I can understand why the poem would move you and resonate with you. Wasn’t it tragic that so many brave young men died so young.

  2. Judy Heath

    Thank you for sharing this poem, I was moved by the sung version, and followed up looking at the video of the story behind the poem… one to remember

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Lovely to hear from you, Judy, and I am glad you liked the poem so much. The sung version is also lovely, isn’t it?

  3. Vanessa

    I first encountered this poem courtesy of John Denver and then was astonished to find the poem itself. I still hear his voice signing the words as I read them and find it a cruel twist of fate that he himself was killed in an air crash. I think he wrote the song as a tribute to the civilian passenger in the space shuttle Challenger disaster – teacher Christa McAuliffe. Thank you for featuring this poem in your Notes Susannah. It always make me think of Gerard Manly Hopkins wit the rhythm and use of language.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It’s so interesting that you first encountered this poem in its sung version and it gets added poignancy form John Denver’s own fate. You remind me that I have yet to feature a Gerara Manley Hopkins poem in my newsletter!

  4. Michele

    Our school held an eisteddfod between houses and, as house captain, I chose this poem to perform with our “choir”. Of course, we won. It was so easy to capture the magic in those lines. I loved hearing John Denver’s singing version. Still brings a tear to my eye.

  5. Lois Cubbin

    Loved your choice of poem this month Susannah. Thank you. Have just finished reading Slide Rule by Neville Shute, an autobiography of his passionate years caught up in design and flying with the very first airships, and the development of aircraft pre-WWII. So your poem carries the mood forward. Lovely to expand these personal thoughts. Lois

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It’s a wonderful poem, isn’t it. I have not read that book by Neville Shute – sounds interesting.

  6. Mary Strachan

    I so love this poem. It was a favourite of my brother, a RAAF pilot and as a former Air Hostess, it also resonates with me. Like you also, I attended a funeral of a pilot friend when this poem was featured. I find the words” and touched the face of God” deeply moving and evocative. Thank you for sharing

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It is a very moving poem, isn’t it, and so tragic that he died so young. One really senses his aloneness up there in the clouds, and his joy in the beauty of flight and the world.

  7. Kathleen Faulkner

    My husband John, an ex Naval and Qantas pilot identified with it and loved the poem.

    Sandra – London

  8. Maria

    I so enjoyed “High Flight” Susannah, thank you for bringing it to my attention. The powerful first and last lines were familiar to me, possibly from reading about the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial many years ago. The poet must have been a remarkable 19 year-old to write such a thoughtful and enduring poem. What a pity his life was so short.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, it is tragic that he died so young. One wonders what else he could have written had he had more years of life?

  9. Heather Gorrell

    Dear Susannah
    Thank you for your poem this month
    High Flight is also a. favourite of mine and I have calligraphy copy framed!
    However, the poem was especially loved by my dad whose close friend flying In World War 11 was shot down near Darwin
    My dad aspired also to be a pilot but his colourblindness prevented his joining the Airforce.
    My fond memories are of him reciting the poem at home and emphasising the wonderful imagery John Magee wrote
    I love “ the tumbling mirth of sun split clouds”…
    Thank you so much for sharing High Flight and evoking special memories.
    Kind regards
    Heather Gorrell

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Those are special memories evoked by the poem! I am so glad you enjoyed it. I had a very dear friend who was a pilot and he died in a small plane crash. The poem was read at his funeral, so always brings back poignant memories for me.

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