High Flight

A Spitfire in flight
A Spitfire in flight by https://unsplash.com/@paul_jespers

Poet and aviator

Since the theme of Airship is aviation, I thought I’d share High Flight, the sonnet that made poet and aviator John Gillespie Magee, Jr. famous. I first came across it in “January 28, 1986”, a short track by Owl City from All Things Bright and Beautiful (2011). The track samples Ronald Reagan’s Challenger disaster speech, in which he borrows from the first and last line of the sonnet. When I looked the sample up, I discovered High Flight. I loved it, instantly. Magee’s words are like aeroplane wings, cutting through the aether—brilliant, proud, joyous and free:

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 or even 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.

Magee wrote the sonnet just months before his death in a mid-air collision. It was 1941—he was nineteen years old.


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