“An aeroplane is not to us a weapon of war, but a flash of silver slanting the skies; the hum of a deep voiced motor; a feeling of dizziness; it is speed and ecstasy.”
– Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., author of High Flight, in a letter to his parents
On Aug. 18, 1941, Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., of No. 53 Operational Training Unit, Royal Canadian Air Force, climbed into a Spitfire for a test flight. With its unique elliptical wings and legendary Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, the nimble Spitfire is arguably the most storied and beautifully designed fighter to come out of World War II. As he flew the fighter through a series of combat maneuvers, Magee experienced a euphoria that typically grips pilots as they put their high performance airplanes through their paces. But, unlike other pilots who after landing walk away thrilled to the point of being speechless, Magee, an accomplished poet, began translating his joyful experience into words on a piece of paper while still airborne. On Sept. 3, 1941, in a letter to his parents he wrote, “I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed. I thought it might interest you.” That verse was the sonnet High Flight, the most famous poem to emerge from World War II.
Born in Shanghai, China in 1922, Magee was the eldest of four boys born to American and English missionaries John and Faith Magee. The young Magee’s poetry talent was officially recognized in 1938 when he received the poetry prize from Rugby School, an English boarding school he was attending. The Magee family was visiting relatives in the United States in 1939 when war broke out in Europe. Unable to return to England, the younger Magee completed his high school education in the States. In 1940 he was offered a scholarship at Yale, where his father was chaplain. Instead, young Magee enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. After earning his wings in June 1941, Pilot Officer Magee was assigned to No. 53 Operational Training Unit in Britain for Spitfire training, where he wrote High Flight. Upon qualifying in the fighter, he was assigned to No. 412 Squadron and experienced his first combat action on Nov. 8, 1941. On Dec. 19, 1941, Magee was killed in an air accident when his Spitfire collided in a cloud with an Airspeed Oxford trainer. He was 19 years old.
In 1941 Magee’s father was the curate of Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., and he reprinted High Flight in a number of church publications. The sonnet came to the attention of Archibald McLeish, Librarian of Congress, who acclaimed it as the first great poem of the war and included it in Faith and Freedom, the Library of Congress exhibition of war poems, in February 1942.
Reprinted and broadcast countless times, High Flight is regarded as one of the world’s great war poems and the greatest anthem of aviation. It is the official poem of the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Air Force. First year cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy are required to memorize it. Extracts have been quoted in a variety of occasions. The most famous example occurred on Jan. 28, 1986, when President Ronald Reagan, speaking of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, closed his address with the sentence: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”
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.