The 75th Anniversary of High Flight

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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 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.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth, so begins the poem, High Flight, one of the most-recited poems in the world, and it has been since it was written in August 1941 by a 19-year-old Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Pilot Officer, John Gillespie Magee Jr.  Magee was an American who had joined the RCAF in 1940,  receiving his wings in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, and joining No. 412 Fighter Squadron, stationed at RAF Digby, England, flying Spitfire fighter aircraft.

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Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Pilot Officer, John Gillespie Magee Jr.

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Three months later, on December 11, 1941, Magee was killed in a mid-air collision over England. Yet 75 years later, the poem Magee had written after a soaring flight in his Spitfire, remains his continuing legacy.

High Flight had been sent home to his parents and Magee’s aunt sent the poem to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Coupled with the news of his death, High Flight was reprinted in newspapers across the U.S. and was designated as the official poem of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Royal Canadian Air Force.

High Flight was included in an exhibition called “Poems of Faith and Freedom” at the Library of Congress with Magee considered the first poet of the Second World War.

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Linda Granfield with John Gillespie Magee Jr. pencil sketch.

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Read more about the background of John Gillespie Magee in the CAHS History Newsreel.