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.
Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee Jr
No 412 Squadron RCAF
Killed while air-testing a Spitfire,
11 December 1941
ohn Gillespie Magee was an American, born in Shanghai to an English mother and a Scottish-Irish-American father. After illegally joining the Royal Canadian Air Force he arrived in Britain in October 1940 and was posted to No 412 Squadron RCAF, which formed at RAF Digby on 30 June 1941.
On 3 September 1941, Magee flew a high-altitude test to 30,000 ft in a new-model Spitfire V. It was during this flight that the inspiration for “High Flight” formed in his mind.
A few days later he wrote a letter to his parents. In it he commented: “I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed.” On the back of the letter, he jotted down his poem, “High Flight.”
Three months later his Spitfire V was involved in a mid-air collision with an Oxford trainer at a height of about 400 feet. He was seen to open his cockpit and stand up, but was too low for his parachute to open. He lies in Scopwick Churchyard, Lincolnshire, where he was buried with full military honours on 13 December 1941.
His parents showed his sonnet to the Librarian of Congress, who included it in an exhibition of poems called “Faith and Freedom” in February 1942, just two months after his death, and from which it was widely copied and distributed.
“High Flight” strikes an instant chord in the heart of anyone with a love of flying, and in the years since it was written has become the personal credo of just about every pilot who ever had an ounce of feeling in his soul, whether he admits to it in public or not.
John Gillespie Magee’s original, on the reverse of his letter to his parents, is preserved in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, Washington D.C., U.S.A.