Poems

Honoring John Glenn and John Gillespie Magee

Famous astronaut John Glenn passed away in December of 2016 and was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery earlier this month. He is most well known for being the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, circling it three times. In memory of John Glenn and poet John Gillespie Magee, we are celebrating Magee’s poem “High Flight” today for National Poetry Month. The poem remains the most enduring of aviation poems.

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 sun-lit silence. Hovering 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 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.

A mid-air collision over Lincolnshire, England, killed 19-year-old Magee. An American pilot officer, he had crossed the border into Canada in 1940 to join the Royal Canadian Air Force and dashed off “High Flight” in a letter to his parents shortly before his death.

His father, a curate of Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., subsequently reprinted it in church publications. But the poem really gained fame after poet Archibald MacLeish included it in a poetry exhibition at the Library of Congress in February 1942.

While Magee wrote poetry in prep school (even winning a prize), the BBC speculated in 2007 that “High Flight’s” inspiration was due in part to hypoxia (oxygen deprivation) experienced by the author in his Spitfire. (Magee had written in his logbook about experiencing the symptoms of hypoxia while flying above 10,000 feet.)

“High Flight” is the official poem of the Royal Canadian Air Force. A copy was carried by astronaut Michael Collins on his Gemini 10 flight, and it was quoted by President Ronald Reagan in his speech to the nation after the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986. The poem has found its way into dozens of pop culture references, including The Simpsons (in one episode Homer declared “we are about to break the surly bonds of gravity and punch the face of God”), Mad Men, The West Wing, and Battlestar Galactica.

“High Flight” also was used by U.S. TV stations when signing off for the evening. See a clip from the 1960s here.

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