High Flight

I'm not really a poetry person. In the long list of literature it ranks – for me – a long way behind the novel, the play, the screenplay and even the well-crafted graphic novel in its ability to move me. I find it very difficult to read a poem and feel the emotions or live the descriptions that the writer wants me to experience. Generally I find the constraints of the form so artificial that they distract me from the literature.

There are exceptions, though – I love the poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins and of Emily Dickinson, for example. And there is one poem in particular that moves me every time I read it. It's called High Flight and it's by John Gillespie Magee.

Magee was an American who enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War Two. In 1941, as a 19-year-old, he wrote High Flight as a way of expressing his love of flying and the exhilaration the experience gave him. I treasure the poem because every word transmits that exhilaration from the page to the reader. You hear about words that “soar” – well, these words really do, and you soar with them. But I can't read it without a tear, either, because of what happened next. Not long after writing High Flight Magee died in an accident, a mid-air collision in heavy cloud caused when his Spitfire hit an Oxford flown by a trainee pilot. It was the sort of accident that could have happened at any time in war or in peace.

The poem is his legacy, and I gather that pilots today still look at it as a mantra and a talisman because nothing else ever written captures the feeling of flight so eloquently. I've also seen it used as a tribute to the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia and it works in that context too.

Why am I writing about it now? Because I was told last night that the pilot of the British Tornado shot down by the American missile was carrying a copy of it with him when he died.

Read it and weep.

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 windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high unsurpassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee
No 412 squadron, RCAF
Killed 11 December 1941