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 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.
–“High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
“I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed,” wrote World War II poet John Magee in a letter home to his parents. On the back of the letter was “High Flight,” a sonnet that has become one of the most famous wartime poems ever. John Gillespie Magee, Jr. was born on June 9, 1922 in Shanghai, China, where his parents, John and Faith, were serving as missionaries. Leaving China in 1931, Magee moved to Britain and attended St. Clare preparatory school and Rugby School. While at Rugby School, Magee’s love for poetry began to develop, and in 1938 he won the school’s poetry prize. A year later, Magee came to the United States and earned a scholarship to Yale; however, war broke out in Europe, and in late 1940 Magee enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and became a pilot. In July 1941, Magee traveled to England for combat duty. While airborne over England one day in August 1941, Magee composed “High Flight.” The imagery, rhythms, and sounds of “High Flight” by John Magee reveal that the poem is about the joy of flying.
The imagery of “High Flight” expresses how exhilarating flying is. Magee describes himself as dancing the skies. His plane has “laughter-silvered wings” (2). When painting a picture of his ascent, Magee calls the sky “the long, delirious, burning blue” (9). Three times Magee personifies objects as being active and cheerful, calling his plane eager, the clouds mirthful, and the wind shouting. All these examples of personification show the objects as being happy and create a feeling that Magee’s personal joy during flight is overflowing into everything around him and making his plane, the clouds, and the wind as joyful as he is. Every action in the poem is alive. Magee utilizes vivid verbs to further express his joy: slipped, danced, climbed, wheeled, soared, swung, chased, topped, trod, and touched.
Magee’s communication of the joy of high flight goes beyond imagery, though; even the rhythm of the poem articulates the theme. For the most part, the rhythm is iambic pentameter. This provides the lines with a sense of fullness and makes them flow smoothly. If Magee had used shorter rhythms, the poem would have been agitated, and if he had used longer rhythms, the poem would have been heavy. As it is, iambic pentameter allows the poem to flow naturally and lightly. This rhythm mimics the fluidity of flight and makes the poem read easily. When Magee varies from iambic pentameter and uses trochee in the poem’s third line, the emphasis on the first syllable pushes us in the direction the word describes: “Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth” (3). In line five, Magee uses the accents of the rhythm to make the words feel like what they describe: “wheeled and soared and swung.” Each of the verbs has a heavier accent than the conjunction and this gives the words a see-saw or side-to-side feeling, mimicking the wheeling, soaring, and swinging motion. The way in which Magee uses punctuation also causes the rhythm to communicate the joy of flight. When he writes, “Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue,” he includes commas in the list of words describing “blue” to create a feeling of the length of the flight and its delightfulness (9). The commas create pauses which give Magee time to savor the ascent. Then, when Magee wants the poem to slow down as he focuses on the sacred joy of flying, he puts a comma in a list of descriptions again: “With silent, lifting mind I’ve trod” (12). This comma puts a brake on the speed of the poem and allows the reader time to reflect.
Even the sounds of the words of “High Flight” reveal the joyfulness of flying. The alliteration in “Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth” creates a smooth feeling, like it is a relief to slip from earth to sky (1). In the line “And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod,” Magee uses assonance to aid the quieter feeling the words create (12). The long “i” of “while,” “silent,” “mind,” and “I’ve” slows the words down and makes them longer and heavier, while at the same time the short “i” of “with” and “lifting” gives these words a light, airy feeling that directs one’s attention upward. Magee’s words thus create a picture of his excitement slowing down into a contemplative and reverential joy that turns its eyes from the material features of high flight to its sacredness – of being in “the high untrespassed sanctity of space” where one is closer to God (13).
Only a few months after penning “High Flight,” John Magee entered into an even higher and better sanctity of space than can be found in the sky. On December 11, 1941, Magee’s Spitfire collided with another plane during a training flight over England, and he died in the crash. No more would he dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings or climb sunward or chase the wind or fling his eager craft through footless halls of air. Magee’s days of serving God on earth as a pilot and a poet were done, and he was at last able to enter into the joy of which he had experienced a mere glimpse when he slipped into the skies, trod the heights of space, put out his hand, and touched the face of God.
Armenti, Peter. “John Gillespie Magee’s ‘High Flight.’” The Library of Congress. 3 Sep. 2013. 9 Mar. 2014. <http://blogs.loc.gov/catbird/2013/09/john-gillespie-magees-high-flight/>
United States National Archives and Records Administration Federal Register Office. “Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations. 1989.” Bartleby.com. 9 March 2014. <http://www.bartleby.com/73/603.html>