A satellite crashed down last night
on your front lawn
I came to see if you're alright
but you were not alone
I will be around - don't count me out
Take a look around - I'm counting down
Even though I feel like I'm in outer space
Watching over you.
-- Sputnik, Shades Apart
I fell in love with the art of flying from earliest on and have loved rereading this small sonnet each new place we moved.
Aha! There you are here this time and this place.
Like a friend it followed from place to place; it almost became a game to discover the verse tacked somewhere on home and office walls around mostly military airfields. It was comfort and consistency. I covet the author’s almost child-like thrill of flight and simple marvel at the splendor of the heavens.
In his Spitfire, Pilot Officer John Magee flew solo flights over the green hills of England. Gathering speed and altitude, he moved through layers of sunlit, billowing clouds that formed gray ceilings frosted with white.
Despite the racket made by the plane's machinery, the sky offered peace. This was time for the pilot to be alone with his thoughts, to feel free from the turmoil below. In September 1941, one of John's many letters home described the results of such a flight: "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."
(Linda Granfield,High Flight: A Story of World War II, The Manitoba Library Association, 1999.)
His friends called him a "genius daredevil". Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
, an American serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force
, composed High Flight
in 1941 at the age of 19. The previous fall a fierce air battle raged over Britain
. Because the US had not yet entered the war, Magee along with many other American men slipped illegally across the Canadian border to join the Royal Canadian Air Force
to do combat against Hitler’s army. Born in Shanghai, China
in 1922, John Magee, Jr. also experienced childhood travels around the world as the son of missionary parents. They moved stateside in 1939 and John received a scholarship to Yale University
, only to shortly enlist in the RCAF where he earned his wings then transferred to England where pilots were is short supply.
Assigned to the newly formed No 412 Fighter Squadron, John was qualified on and flew the Supermarine Spitfire. -- "Patches of brilliance, tendency to overconfidence" noted his instructor. Magee flew sorties over France and England against the German Luftwaffe and soon reached the rank of Pilot Officer. "An aeroplane," John noted in a letter home at one point in his basic flight training in Canada, "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."
The date of composition for this poem is September 3, 1941 a day he was out test piloting a new version of the Spitfire V. Magee had always aspired to be a lyricist and sometime during that flight he was struck by the phrase "To touch the face of God." By the time he had landed he scribbled the verse on the back of an envelope and mailed it home to his mom and dad who were living in Washington DC where his father was assistant rector at St. John's, "The Church of the Presidents.”
He also wrote in his letter that his lessons would be finished shortly and then going on maneuvers, adding, "I think we are very lucky as we shall just be in time for the autumn blitzes (which are certain to come)." Three months later John Magee died tragically in an air collision:
The Spitfire V he was flying, VZ-H, collided with an Oxford Trainer from Cranwell Airfield flown by one Ernest Aubrey. The mid-air happened over the village of Roxholm, which lies between RAF Cranwell and RAF Digby, in the county of Lincolnshire at about 400 feet AGL at 11:30. John was descending in the clouds. At the enquiry a farmer testified that he saw the Spitfire pilot struggle to push back the canopy. The pilot, he said, finally stood up to jump from the plane. John, however, was too close to the ground for his parachute to open. He died instantly.
On December 11th 1941, only four days after Pearl Harbor
and three days after America entered the war Pilot Officer Magee was buried with full military honors in the Holy Cross cemetery at Scopwick, Lincolnshire
. His parents published the poem in a church bulletin as a memoriam. Six months after its composition Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish
included High Flight
in an exposition of poems called 'Faith and Freedom' in February 1942. Just before the war Magee had already published a small book of poetry around the time he began his course of study at Yale. Quickly heralded as one of the great poems of the war, High Flight
was copied and circulated with many variations in formatting, spelling and punctuation. Structured most often in sonnet
form the phrase commented about most frequently is:
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew.
Most texts use the phrase even eagle flew
, but those who have seen the original in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, note that Magee echoed never
with the word ever
and related that “Some portions are faded and difficult to read, but the version above follows Magee's as exactly as can be made out” Subsequently his penciled memo on another verse, "if anyone should want this please see that it is accurately copied, capitalized, and punctuated."
One fellow citizen flight student who went through training with Magee writes:
During our acquaintanceship, he had always maintained that his first love was poetry, although he had discovered that flying was not far behind. He was thus able to imbue his flying with a sense of lyricism.
I happened to run into him shortly after his first flight in a Spitfire about which he was waxing lyrical. I urged him, though not very seriously, that since he had always wanted to be a poet he should put his feelings down in words.
He thereupon sat down in the mess and composed, in a very short time, the first draft of "High Flight" written, literally, "on the back of an envelope".
I must have been the first person to read it, but cannot claim that I foresaw its eventual fame. It was some years later that I heard of Magee's fate.
(Air Vice-Marshall M.H. Le Bas)
Words can have a powerful effect and today High Flight
is a tribute and inspiration as an aviator's anthem, and an epitaph of pilots everywhere. Orson Welles
deep and sonorous voice recorded Magee’s verse for the Radio Reader's Digest
in 1946. During the 1960’s High Flight
appeared over pictures of mountains, American flags and fighter aircraft as a station closing video on many US television stations. It is said to have been one of Christa McAuliffe
’s favorite poems and one reason that President Ronald Reagan
used the well-remembered lines when he addressed the grief stricken employees at NASA
after the disaster and terrible loss of the Challenger 7
crew on STS-51:
” We shall never forget them nor the last time we saw them, as they prepared for their mission and waved good-bye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God,"
Both Nick Stah
in the 1993 movie Man Without A Face
and Russell Crowe
in the 1994 movie For The Moment
narrate the sonnet. Senator and astronaut John Glenn
recited it during Alan Shepard
’s memorial, it was spoken again during the induction of Cliff Robertson
into the National Aviation Hall of Fame
and John Denver
set the lyrics to song in his Flight (The Higher We Fly)
. In 1971, Lunar Module Pilot James Irwin
carried a copy of High Flight
on the Apollo Space Mission
Language set upon a bright blue sky with palpable elation depicting innumerable images of laughter-silvered wings among the tumbling mirth of shouting wind as a pilot’s eager craft makes its way through footless halls of air; long, delicious, burning blue at wind swepth heights. Expression that is so glibly lent in imagery; incorporated time and again. Perhaps one day it will be anthologized and manifest itself as a classic who origins emerged as one hallmark of the still terrestrial bound twentieth century; one that was brimming full of aeronautical explorations of astronomic proportions.
Please note that Ian Lancashire for the Department of English at the University of Toronto relates that since it was unusually and extensively printed during and after the war, John Magee's poem entered the public domain shortly after his death
dedicated to the Columbia space shuttle mission STS-107.
Great Aviation Quotes: High Flight by John Magee:
HG Digest on the internet,
Vol.95 No.113, February 19, 1995.
John Gillespie Magee & HIGH FLIGHT High Flight Productions:
John Gillespie Magee Jr. (1922-1941), High Flight:
Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr.