Sunday, 24 August 2014

Oh ! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth

I am minded of the flight of Icarus when reading that amazingly inspirational poem "High Flight" by John Gillespie Magee, which so well describes the exhilaration and the wonder of high flying.

John Magee was an American who joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. He wanted to support Britain in its hour of need during World War 2 at a time when the Americans had not yet entered the war. He was based in Britain in 1941 flying Spitfires.


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 falls 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.

(John Gillespie Magee)

The poem is very impacting with its powerful images. It's opening line  "Oh ! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth" conjures up images of the free spirit, unshackled, soaring the skies and playing among the clouds and ends with that powerful line "put out my hand and touched the face of God".

John Magee was born in Shanghai in 1922 to an American father and a British mother who worked as Anglican missionaries in China. He was educated at Rugby School in England and then finished his schooling in the United States where he won a scholarship to Yale. However Britain and Canada were at war with Germany in September 1939 and Magee instead of going up to Yale chose instead to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force whilst still only eighteen years old in October 1939.

In 1941 he was posted to England joining a spitfire squadron. In September 1941 he flew at a very high altitude of 30,000 feet on a test flight for a new model of the Spitfire. He must have found it exhilarating  and this gave him the inspiration for his famous poem.

Shortly after this he wrote to his parents and scribbled down the poem on the back of the letter. He wrote "I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed".

Three months later in December 1941, just a few days after the United States had entered the war,  John Magee was killed in a collision whilst flying his Spitfire over Tangmere Air Field in  Sussex. At the enquiry which followed a local farmer reported that he saw the Spitfire pilot struggling to get out of his aircraft but he was too close to the ground for his parachute to open. He died aged nineteen as did the pilot of the other aircraft Ernest Griffin.

The original hand written poem is now held by the Library of Congress. The poem was quoted by President Reagan in 1986 during a presidential address following the explosion and disintegration of the Challenger space shuttle.

Russell Crowe well recited the poem in the 1994 film "For the Moment".

As a poem it is both inspiring and uplifting. It is also sad that the pilot and poet met his death in the skies that he loved so dearly not long after writing this poem. He was one of many young men who gave their lives in the service of their country at a time of war.  In addition to John Magee there was also the loss of the pilot of the Oxford Trainer, Ernest Griffin, with whom he collided. Two brave men who took to the skies  - lest we forget.



  1. "
Where never lark, nor ever eagle flew" - very poignant and so elegantly written.

  2. That's the birder in you Andrew !