John Gillespie Magee’s “High Flight”

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.

"High Flight"

Original manuscript of John Gillespie Magee’s “High Flight” (Manuscript Division: John Magee Papers, 1941-1946). LCCN: mm 79005423

A transcription of the poem follows:

High Flight

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.

18 Comments

  1. Lucy norman Spencer
    September 3, 2013 at 10:24 am

    THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. M Macan
    September 3, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    As I read the manuscript copy my eyes detect a different version from the transcript. Instead of “Where never lark nor ever eagle flew—” I see it as “Where never lark, or ever eagle flew—”, which seems to carry a bit better, at least to my ear. Anyone else see this discrepancy?

  3. M Macan
    September 4, 2013 at 9:12 am

    Also, the following line “And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod” is missing a comma after the word “silent”. It is very clearly visible on the manuscript and I am thus rather surprised that the 1989 Respectfully Quoted transcription has it wrong. Although perhaps what I’m able to see on the manuscript is a factor of being able to enlarge a digital version, something the transcriber in 1989 may not have had available to them…
    Thanks, M. Macan

  4. K. Naghski
    September 4, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    Thank you for the information about this amazing poem. If anyone would like to hear it read very beautifully, Russell Crowe gives a wonderful recitation of “High Flight” in the 1993 film For the Moment.

  5. C. Spencer
    September 5, 2013 at 11:30 pm

    I also question the above transcription of the third from last line. Looks to me like “silent, lifting wind . . .” Compare with other initial w’s, as in “wind-swept” and “with” 2 lines above, and “wind” 4 lines above. Virtually identical. There is only one lower-case initial m in the poem to compare it with: “my” in the last line. Yes, it looks almost identical to the initial w. But I’ll go for “silent, lifting wind . . .” It just makes more sense, in context, than “silent, lifting mind . . .”

    Unless, of course, there is more than one manuscript copy in the original author’s hand, and another copy clearly has “mind.”

  6. C. Rizzo
    September 9, 2013 at 9:27 am

    Peter, I am always in awe at the amount of research and care that goes into your posts! This one reminds me of a great poem by Yeats–“An Irish Airman Sees His Fate”–that I first read a few years back. There must be something about poetry that seems especially suited to these “lofty” pursuits.

  7. Ray Haas
    September 26, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    I am near publication of my book about John Magee and his poem “High Flight.” In my 20+ years worth of research into Magee and his most famous poem, I have been asked many times about the “even” vs “ever” situation. I have concluded that what Magee intended on writing was “even,” not “ever.” The other citations notwithstanding, I submit my own evidence:

    – The first known publication of High Flight is in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper. Published even before Magee died, the paper clearly shows “even” not “ever.”

    – In “Sunward I’ve Climbed,” the biography on Magee written by Hermann Hagedorn in 1942, the poem quotes “even.” Hagedorn, without a doubt, had a very close look at the original letter containing High Flight that was sent to Magee’s parents.

    – Faith Magee, John Magee’s mother, recited her son’s poem for the United States Air Force – the recording is available from the USAF Museum. You can listen to the recording on my website (www.highflightproductions.com). Mrs. Magee quite clearly says “even eagle flew.” I think that of all the people who have read Magee’s letters, she would be the most familiar with his handwriting.

    – The letter itself. I have a high-resolution scan from the Library of Congress of Magee’s letter containing High Flight. Indeed, Magee’s “n” appears nearly identical to his “r”. In the word “never” (“never lark, or even eagle”), both letters are used – and they are very similar. On the flip side of the page containing High Flight is an entire page of Magee’s handwriting, with plenty of enns and arrs. I’m not a handwriting expert, but I could see where one could easily confuse one for the other.

    I am very open to discussion about “High Flight,” or any other facet of Magee’s life.

  8. ella
    April 9, 2014 at 7:30 am

    Why argue and debate and mince up the words of this stunning poem. It is touching and personal to each person who reads it. Spend your time sharing the poem with young people who have no sense of history or sacrifice that young people of a not so far away time made on behalf of all of us. Maybe by doing that, we could inspire another Magee.

  9. Kharietta
    April 25, 2014 at 2:24 am

    This is a very powerful yet lovely poem. I’m writting a paper on this poem, aaah..

  10. Barbara Sheridan
    May 26, 2014 at 7:57 am

    My late husband, Captain David A. Sheridan, USMC -pilot – quoted this poem many times during his life. A copy hung in his den, and he often recited it to his children. The poem is to this day inspiring and God honoring. May we always remember those who served.

  11. Mark Mc Auley
    December 8, 2014 at 5:07 pm

    If you have ever watched the movie Memphis Belle , as there mission is delayed and they are sitting on the grass chatting , Eric Stolt .Sgt. Danny “Danny Boy” Daly is persuaded to read out his poem which is of course High Flight….

  12. Tim Featherston
    February 15, 2015 at 11:12 am

    High Flight was my father-in-laws favorite poem. He was a crew member on a B 29 bomber with the 98th from 1945 through 1951. Pa joined the Air Force when he was only 15, He passed away yesterday at the age of 84. He would always tell everyone about his years in the USAF, they were the best years of his life. “High Flight” will be read at his services on Wednesday.

  13. Chris Russell
    March 29, 2015 at 6:04 pm

    My husband John was a dedicated glider pilot for many years and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things to do with aircraft.
    This poem will be read at his funeral on 13th April.

  14. Rich Jennings
    August 4, 2015 at 1:57 am

    I served in the U. S. Air Force during the Vietnam War, crew member on C-130s and C-131s. Retrospectively, I don’t regret any of the seven years I spent in the Air Force. I remember Magee’s High Flight being inspirationally recited by Robert Conrad while a video of a T-38 (F-104) was flying some acrobatics – respectfully, I might add, no clowning around – as one of two common TV station sign-offs at the end of the day. This same inspirational video can be watched on YouTube. Very impressive!!!

  15. elaine
    September 8, 2015 at 11:01 pm

    I believe the first time I ever saw and read this “peerless” poem it was in The Last Whole Earth Catalog published in the early 70’s……anybody with me on this?

  16. anna thomas
    October 17, 2015 at 5:37 pm

    I have only recently discovered this beautiful gem, which I feel is / was inspired.
    It was on the 75TH Anniversary of The Battle of Britain in September.
    There is a very poignant, but informative and musical concert, available on the BBC 1 I PLAYER. Categories ( music ). It is sung by an , angelic voiced soprano, and the orchestral , arrangement added to the beauty. It spoke to my heart and I was completely blown away. The world – now – seems a better place.
    Hope you find it, it’s life enhancing?

  17. Erica Pegouskie
    January 17, 2016 at 9:26 pm

    Missing my poem Published In 1996 Tears thru the National Library of Poetry I found the book for sale on eBay in hopes my poem was in it.Can u please help me find it again?

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