John Gillespie Magee, Jr. (1922–41)
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.
ATTRIBUTION: JOHN G. MAGEE, JR., “High Flight,” September 3, 1941.
Magee was born in Shanghai, China, of missionary parents—an American father and an English mother—and spoke Chinese before English. He was educated at Rugby school in England and at Avon Old Farms School in Connecticut. He won a scholarship to Yale, but instead joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in late 1940, trained in Canada, and was sent to Britain. He flew in a Spitfire squadron and was killed on a routine training mission on December 11, 1941. The sonnet above was sent to his parents written on the back of a letter which said, “I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed.” He also wrote of his course ending soon and of his then going on operations, and added, “I think we are very lucky as we shall just be in time for the autumn blitzes (which are certain to come).”
Magee’s parents lived in Washington, D.C., at the time of his death, and the sonnet came to the attention of Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish. He acclaimed Magee the first poet of the War, and included the poem in an exhibition of poems of “faith and freedom” at the Library of Congress in February 1942. The poem was then widely reprinted, and the R. C. A. F. distributed plaques with the words of the poem to all airfields and training stations.
The reprintings vary in punctuation, capitalization, and indentation from the original manuscript, which is in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. 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.”
President Ronald Reagan quoted from the first and last lines in a televised address to the nation after the space shuttle Challenger exploded, January 28, 1986.—Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, February 3, 1986, p. 105.