“High Flight”: Poetry at 30,000 feet

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Abby Finkel
  • 48th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
President Ronald Reagan quoted it in his public address following the space shuttle Challenger tragedy.

U.S. Air Force Col. James Irwin, Apollo 15 Lunar Module pilot, took a copy of it with him to the moon.

Written months before his death on December 11, 1941, Royal Canadian Air Force Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee Jr.’s poem, “High Flight,” has had a far wider reach than its 19-year-old writer probably could have imagined.

According to the Bomber Command Museum of Canada, Magee, a United States citizen, gave up a scholarship at Yale University to join the RCAF in 1940. He wanted to become a pilot and join the Allies in their fight against Nazi Germany. At the time, the United States had not yet entered World War II, so Americans who wanted to join the Allies had to join either the Canadian or British armed forces.

In 1941, after completing his pilot training, the young airman was sent to RAF Digby, England, with the No. 412 Fighter Squadron, to fly a Supermarine Spitfire.

On September 3, 1941, Magee took a new-model Spitfire for a high altitude test flight. While flying at 30,000 feet, he felt inspired to write his now-famous poem.

“It started at 30,000 feet,” Magee said in a letter home to his parents, “and was finished soon after I landed.”

Written on the back of the letter, the 14-line poem described Magee’s feelings during the flight.

“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 nor ever 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.”

A few months after he wrote the poem, and three days after the U.S. entered the war, Magee was killed when his Spitfire collided mid-air with another aircraft over Lincolnshire, England.

According to a Library of Congress blog, as one of the first local war-related casualties after the declaration of war, his death garnered some media attention in his hometown of Washington, D.C. The poem was published with the story of Magee’s death. It was also distributed to many airfields, training stations and Allied fighter pilots.

Magee is buried at the Scopwick Church Burial Ground in Lincolnshire. Two lines of the poem are carved onto his headstone.

The original copy of his poem is on display at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.