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High Flight

The other day, we posted 'The eyes of the country', about the Royal . The poem we found affixed to the old Royal Observers' post in Upham was by John Magee, the son of an American father and a British mother working as missionaries in China. John was born in Shanghai in 1922. He was educated at Rugby School from 1935 to 1939, and won the Poetry Prize, just as Rupert Brooke had three decades previously. Magee was moved by the roll of honour which listed the names of Rugby students who had fallen in the First World War. Visiting America in 1939, he was unable to find a return passage to Britain due to the outbreak of the Second World War. So in 1940 he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. In 1941, he reached England.

With the RAF he learned to fly Spitfires. He flew fighter sweeps over France and air defense over England against the German Luftwaffe, and rose to the rank of Pilot Officer. Test-flying a new Spitfire above 30,000 feet in the summer of 1941, he was struck with inspiration. When he reached the ground, he wrote the sonnet High Flight.

Three months later, while descending through clouds, Magee was killed in a mid-air collision. Carried by the pilots of his squadron, he was laid to rest. His poem, which he had sent to his parents on the back of a letter, survived:

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've trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Comments (1)

jlh:

How did the poem come to be quoted by President Reagan in 1986 [after the Challenger disaster]? As it happens, he knew of the poem: ‘I hadn’t heard it in years, but of course I knew it from years back, the war. And I think it was written on a sort of tablet or plaque outside Patti’s school that I took her to when she was a young girl.’ It transpires that Reagan had also been present the night fellow actor Tyrone Power returned from fighting in the Second World War – a party at which Power recited ‘High Flight’ from memory. (When Power died, the poem was read over his grave by Laurence Olivier.)

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