One day in late August or early September, 1941, a 19-year-old Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot named John Gillespie Magee, Jr., who was then serving with the No. 412 Squadron in Royal Air Force Digby, England, sent a letter to his parents. “I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day,” he began. “It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed.” The verse, or “ditty,” as Magee later refers to it, was a sonnet titled “High Flight,” a fourteen-line paean to the sublimity and sheer joy of flight felt by Magee during a solo run in his Spitfire aircraft. Magee’s aunt helped get the poem published in the November 12th issue of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where it may have remained known to a limited readership had not tragedy struck.
It was December 11th, only a few months after Magee—a United States citizen who had joined the RCAF in 1940 before the U.S. entered World War II—had written “High Flight.” Returning to base with his squadron after participating in a successful training exercise, Magee’s Spitfire collided with an Airspeed Oxford piloted by Ernest Aubrey Griffin. Both Magee and Griffin were killed.
Within days of Magee’s death, “High Flight” had been reprinted in newspapers across the U.S. Soon after, the RCAF began distributing plaques with the text of the poem to British and Canadian airfields and training stations. And before long, copies of the poem could be found in the pockets of many U.S., Canadian, and British fighter pilots.
The poem’s popularity owes much to the fact that Magee’s parents lived in Washington, D.C., at the time of his death. The U.S. had been thrust into the war only days earlier after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and because Magee was one of the first local casualties, D.C. reporters immediately made their way to his parents’ house for information about the fallen pilot. At the time, John’s father was assistant minister at St. John’s Church, and among the materials he provided to journalists was an issue of the church bulletin in which “High Flight” had been published. The poem was widely republished in the following days as part of stories covering Magee’s death, and it soon came to the attention of poet and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish, who immediately hailed Magee as the first poet of the World War II. On February 5, 1942, the Library of Congress included Magee’s poem in an exhibition called “Poems of Faith and Freedom.” “High Flight” shared a case in the exhibit with two noted WWI poems, John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” and Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier.” “High Flight” was the only WWII poem included in the exhibit, and thanks in part to the Library display it quickly became one of the best-known poems of World War II.
The Library of Congress receives many inquiries each year about the correct wording and punctuation of “High Flight”; versions of the poem found on the Web and in print often introduce minor variations not found in the original manuscript. We are able to assist with these inquiries to the extent that the original manuscript copy of “High Flight” is part of our Manuscript Division‘s John Magee Papers, donated to the Library by Magee’s parents on April 14, 1943. However, the letter that includes the poem, because it was written by Magee on thin airmail paper, is difficult to read.
A transcription of the poem follows:
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.
The most authoritative transcription of the poem appears in the book Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations Requested from the Congressional Research Service (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1989), which is available online through Bartleby.com.
Respectfully Quoted‘s entry for the poem notes the following of reprintings:
The reprintings vary in punctuation, capitalization, and indentation from the original manuscript. . . . Some portions are faded and difficult to read, but the version above follows Magee’s as exactly as can be made out, following his pencilled note on another poem, “If anyone should want this please see that it is accurately copied, capitalized, and punctuated.” Nearly all versions use “. . . even eagle,” but to the editor’s careful scrutiny, it was “ever,” formed exactly like the preceding “never.”
“High Flight” has made numerous appearances in American popular culture since it went on display at the Library of Congress and continues to enjoy widespread popularity in the United States. Orson Welles, for instance, recorded a reading of it on October 11, 1942, for Radio Reader’s Digest. During the 1950s and through at least the early 1980s, the poem was included in many television stations’ “sign-offs” before going off the air, carving out a place in the imaginations and memories of several generations of Americans. A copy of the poem was taken to the moon by Apollo 15 Lunar Module Pilot James Irwin.
The poem is probably best-known today by Americans old enough to have witnessed the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. President Reagan, who had been planning to deliver his State of the Union speech that evening, instead consoled a grieving nation by giving one of the most powerful presidential addresses of the 20th century, concluding with the following paragraph that quotes from the first and last lines of the poem:
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
By writing “High Flight,” John Gillespie Magee, Jr., achieved a place in American consciousness arguably greater than any he could have achieved through heroism in battle. His poem will continue to rank among the most popular aviation poems ever written as long as there are people for whom the miracle of flight inspires wonder and awe.
The Library’s original copy of “High Flight” is stored in a vault in our Manuscript Division; due to preservation concerns, viewing access is rarely permitted. If you have questions about our copy of “High Flight” or other materials in the John Magee Papers, please feel free to contact our Manuscript Division.