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.
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?
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
This is a very powerful yet lovely poem. I’m writting a paper on this poem, aaah..
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.
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….
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.
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.
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!!!
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?
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?
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?
I’ve added your question into our Ask a Librarian system. I will be in touch with you soon with a more complete response.
My Father left this earth on Oct. 8, 2016. He was a Technical engineer at Vandenberg air Force base from the late 1960’s to about 1990. He was a pilot that built his own airplanes and helped others to build their own. He flew gliders, small power planes, and ultra lights. It was his wish that this poem be read at His celebration of life. It was his favorite.
Vicki A Palmer,
Daughter of Norman L. Shaw
I’ve often misquoted the first few lines of this poem. This is the first time I’ve read it through. I wonder how many of the brave airmen who risked, and in so many gave their lives for freedom felt the same.
The words are timeless. They will continue to be published, read, provide inspiration and great solace long after the return visits to the moon, long after Martian winds erase any trace of mankind’s presence, long after the push beyond our Solar System.
Pilot Officer Magee’s insight comes from his upbringing, his direction, his guidance…his family.
May “the family” continue to be the bedrock of your nation and mine.
Peace be with you.
The original manuscript is very difficult to read. I am convinced the word inserted as “mind” (3rd line from last) should be “wind” – the wind “lifts,” so this makes more sense in this poem. The pilot can certainly feel the wind lift his plane. He alludes to this in a previous line that reads:I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace…
I see from other comments some of the other so-called original words have been changed.
Was introduced to High Flight at the High School For Girls( Montreal) in1952. At that time ,the study of sonnets was a mandatory part of the Grade 10 literature curriculum.
Then as now, the beautiful picture the poem paints, reaffirms my faith!
Respectfully, I agreed with Ray Haas’s premise and used the original lettering of “Where never lark nor even eagle flew—” in a novel I published in 2016, which is based in part on the life, letters, and poetry of John G. Magee Jr. John wrote more than a dozen poems in his short life that we know of, and rarely, if ever, did he rhyme two words within the same sentence. Which is the more poetic, ever eagle or even eagle? I’d say the latter.
Secondly, John Magee’s famous flight that inspired the sonnet occurred the day after Elinor Lyon’s birthday, the 17th of August, and he mentioned phoning her in a letter. Elinor Lyon was the primary reason he was flying in England in the RCAF in the first place. I explore her added influence on my blog and in the novel.
The line you have printed in your transcription as:
“Where never lark nor ever eagle flew—”
seems to appear in the manuscript as:
“Where never lark or ever eagle flew—”
i.e. OR instead of NOR.
This was noted by M Macan (see above) in 2013, but has not been addressed by you. It would be interesting to know if the letter ‘n’ is just not visible on the scan, or if your transcription (and the assumed reading of many as ‘nor’ is simply incorrect.
Dear Mr. Kesselman,
Thanks for your comment. The transcription of “High Flight” that I provided was taken from Respectfully Quoted. That said, I agree with your assessment—to my eye it appears that the line in question reads:
“Where never lark, or ever eagle flew—”
It may be that the staff who transcribed the poem interpreted what seems to be a comma after “lark” as the vertical stem of the letter “n”; it’s also possible that in the original manuscript, which I’ve not reviewed, there appears a faded, but visible, “n.” Since our Manuscript Division holds the physical copy of the manuscript, I suggest you contact the Manuscript Division directly to see if staff there can review the manuscript and provide any further insight.
Is there a video of high flight available to purchase?
I’m not aware of a video (e.g., a DVD) of the “High Flight” sign off available for purchase, though availability would in part depend on which version of the sign off you have in mind. Some videos appear to be held by the National Archives as part of Record Group 32, “Records of U.S. Air Force Commands, Activities, and Organizations, 1900-2003.” You can contact the National Archives directly for details about the videos it holds and options for obtaining copies. Alternatively, if you know the television station or network that aired the sign off, you might try contacting it directly, assuming it is still active, to see if it offers any options for obtaining a copy of the sign off.
I use Corel Photo-Paint (2017 edition) to enhance the letter, after comparing the script letter “M” in both the word “My” (from “Put out my hand …” ) and “mind” from “with silent uplifting mind …”) – the letter forms are very close to being identical. The word script “wind” has no leading upswing stroke. Therefore the phrase “silent uplifting mind …” is correct.
“High Flight” resonates with Psalms 119 “The Heavens Declare the Glory of God”
I’m reading High Flight at the 50th anniversary service on 19 August to remember 7 RAF aircrew who died in a mid-air collision between a Victor and a Canberra over Holt Norfolk UK. It was a miracle that there were no casualties on the ground as debris was scattered over a wide area much of it residential. I have been fascinated by the debate (I thought “or ever eagle” would be best before I read comments! Peter Armenti’s commentary is masterly. And what a poem!
Those interested in the life and poetry of John Magee may like to know that local residents of the village of Wellingore UK have formed a charitable foundation with a project to erect a bronze statue of John Magee in the village. John was billeted in Wellingore at the time of his last flight and took off from Wellingore airfield. The village receives many visitors who have traced his last posting and our intent is to provide a fitting memorial. For more information please see http://www.mageejrfoundation.uk
My father, Col. Harry W. Taylor USMC, was laid to rest at Arlington on Sept. 25. I requested that the chaplain read High Flight, as my father was a naval aviator. Such a moving poem…
I agree with “lark, or ever” and “silent, lifting mind.”
“Where never lark, or ever eagle flew—
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod”
While “neither/nor” is a linguistically correct coupling of negatives, “never/nor” is not. “Never” does not require “nor.”
The word “even” could make sense in a hierarchy of attempts (the lark, then the stronger eagle). However, I sense a parallelism between “never” and “ever:” a lark has *never* succeeded, and no eagle has *ever* succeeded, either.
Magee wrote “ever” with backward 3’s for the “e’s” and one hump for the “r.”
The expression “or ever eagle flew” is very familiar, though perhaps dated, poetic language. John’s father was an assistant minister, so John was steeped in the language and poetry of the Bible, including this passage on death: “Or ever the silver cord be loosed, … Then shall the dust return to the earth …” (Ecclesiastes 12:6-7, KJV)
In the second line above, the question is whether the poet meant “mind” or “wind.” I believe “mind” is correct.”
Magee wrote his “w’s” with a backward curl at the end and a concluding rightward dash. But he wrote “mind” with six spikes: three for “m,” one for “i,” and two for “n.”
Where you would expect the image of a “silent, lifting wind” to continue in the vein of previous material images, he suddenly switches to “silent, lifting mind.” This is a masterful example of a pivot term (much like a pivot chord in music). Both “wind” and “mind” have meaning here, but by shifting to “mind,” the poet reveals that his point is the elevation of the mind. It is his bridge from elements in the physical world to the highest pinnacle reached at death: “the face of God.”
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What is the meaning of the word “delirious” as it describes the sky in the poem
Maybe it is silly to ask, but I quoted the last stanza of this poem recently in a blogpost for an emagazine and the editor raised the question of whether it is permissible to quote it. Is there a copyright issue? The emagazine is a nonprofit, I’m not being paid, and I see this poem quoted in its entirety all over the place, including twitter recently. So I am thinking there is no copyright problem. Set me straight if you can.
Thank you for the magnificent research that went into this post! As a former pilot it adds depth I used to quote often.
TO THIS DAY THE MOST TOUCHING,TEAR PROVOKING POEM I HAVE EVER HEARD OR READ. IT BRINGS TO MIND ANOTHER GEM WITH THE WORDS, “FOR I SHALL NOT PASS THIS WAY AGAIN”.
AS OF DEC 1,2021 THE MOST TOUCHING AND TEAR PRVOKING
POEM I HAVE EVER READ OR HEARD READ BY ANOTHER.
IT BRING TO MIND ANOTHER WELL KNOWN POEM THAT ENDS WITH, I SHALL NOT PASS THIS WAY AGAIN. MAY BOTH THESE GREAT POEMS CONTINE TO PRAISE GOD FOEVER AND ALL TIME.
QUOTE: “USMC PILOT DURING THE 1060s”
Mad props to you sir!
Definitely a pioneer.
I remember this very sonnet would on the TV I get my father’s attention he was a ww2 veteran he said it was a different world up up in the atmosphere wow Beverly Faye Jones Minnesota R I P DECATED TO ALL OF THE VETERANS
SCOPWICK CHURCH BURIAL GROUND
Lincolnshire, United Kingdom
Row 3. Grave 33.
Digby aerodrome was built towards the end of the First World War and after the war it functioned as a permanent unit of the Royal Air Force. In 1937 it became a member of No 12 Fighter Group in which it remained until the end of the Second World War.
Digby was one of the original sectors of Fighter Command and in the early days of the Second World War was very active in the defence of northern England. No 42 (Fighter) Squadron Royal Canadian Air Force (known as the Red Indian Squadron from the emblem which it carried) was formed there in April 1942. On September 16, 1942, the sector was taken over by the RCAF and until the end of the war was known as Royal Canadian Air Force Station, Digby.
The 37 Canadian airmen buried at Scopwick lost their lives while stationed at Digby. They include an American airman who served with the RCAF, P/O J G Magee, and author of the poem ‘High Flight’.
Scopwick Church Burial Ground contains 50 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War and five German war graves. The graves form a plot in the top half of the burial ground. The Cross of Sacrifice in the corner of the plot was unveiled by the Air Member, Canadian Joint Staff on June 1, 1950.
My father shared this poem with me when I was a child. His version was from a much loved copy of William Maclurg Smyth’s “Poems of Spirit and Action”.
I recall the famous line as:
“Where never lark nor even eagle flew” but I may have remembered incorrectly.