“High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr was written on August 18, 1941 only a few months before his death. He wrote this poem after flying to a hight of 33,000 feet in a Spitfire Mk I. He sent the poem to his parents on September 3, 1941. It was then published in church publications by his father, the curate of Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.
In February 1942, the Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, included it in an exhibition of poems called “Faith and Freedom”. The poem still resides in the Library of Congress.
“High Flight” has been seen in numerous places since Magee’s death. It has been adapted to music, used for raising war bonds in World War II, read by Orson Welles on “The Radio Reader’s Digest”, written on an index card and brought into space by Astronaut Michael Collins, and read at the funeral of Senator John McCain.
Let’s take a quick look at a summary of John Gillespie Magee, Jr’s “High Flight” and then have a look at a line-by-line analysis.
Magee wrote this poem after his flight to 33,000 while he was in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a fighter pilot. Much of Magee’s influence comes from “Icarus: An Anthology of the Poetry of Flight”. The last two lines were first used by Cuthbert Hicks in his poem “The Blind Man Flies” in the anthology and the phrase “on laughter-silvered wings” was used by G. W. M. Dunn in his poem “New World”. Other phrases similar to Magee’s found in the anthology are “lifting mind”, “the shouting of the air”, and “Across the unpierced sanctity of space”.
“High Flight” attempts to describe Magee’s view of his flight and his emotions that came with it.
Title: High Flight
Rhyme scheme: ABABCDCD-EFEGFG
Line-by-line Analysis and Figurative Language
- slipped the surly bonds of earth– a consonance used to help describe escaping gravity
- And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; – flew across the sky happily
- Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth- upward with amusement
- High in the sunlit silence – the quietness of the heights
- I’ve chased the shouting wind along – He is referring to the loudness of the wind and him flying fast. He uses the word “shouting” in direct contrast to his earlier use of “silence”.
- My eager craft – he’s giving personification of the airplane
- Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue – he’s giving some personification to the sky, as if it is excited for him to be there with it
- Where never lark or even eagle flew – he flew so high that no birds can follow
- with silent lifting mind – again, speaking of sound to contrast again. The “lifting mind” refers to again, his excitement.
- untrespassed sanctity of space – it’s as if no one else has traveled there, or at least, it belongs to everyone.
- Put out my hand, and touched the face of God – He feels that flying at such an altitude is like being in Heaven.
Poem: “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr
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.
Reading this poem is exciting. It’s as if I can feel the wind, see the clouds, and enjoy the time along with Magee. His use of sound is fantastic. If a poet can use all our senses, you know it is a good poem. He contrasts the silence with loudness as a way to bring out our emotions and help us imagine exactly what it is like to sit in that plane at 33,000 feet. I can definitely see why this poem is a favorite among pilots and astronauts.