70 Years of “Slipping the Surly Bonds”

Whether you love it or hate it, John Gillespie Magee’s “High Flight” remains the most enduring of aviation poems

John Gillespie Magee Jr. Library and Archives, Canada

Whether you love it or hate it, John Gillespie Magee’s “High Flight” 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 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.

Sunday, December 11 marks the 70th anniversary of the mid-air collision over Lincolnshire, England, in which 19-year-old Magee was killed. An American Pilot Officer, he had crossed the border into Canada in 1940 to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. This weekend, Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire celebrates Magee’s life with a series of events, including a reading of his poetry.  Wikipedia has a very good page on Magee, who 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 McLeish (then Librarian of Congress) included it in a poetry exhibition at the Library of Congress in February 1942.

Aerial view of Lincoln Cathedral, site of the December 11, 2011 commemoration. Courtesy Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire.

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 (“I was born in ’64, and I honestly recall seeing this from a playpen in my parent’s living room. I always wanted to be on that plane! I also loved this man’s voice,” writes one poster), and one from KCRA, in Sacramento, California, as late as 1986, here.

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