John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
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.
John Gillespie Magee, Jr. Born 9 June 1922, Died 11 December 1941
He was an American aviator and poet who died as a result of a mid-air collision over Lincolnshire during World War II. He was serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force, which he joined before the United States officially entered the war. He is most famous for his poem “High Flight.”
John Gillespie Magee, Junior was born in Shanghai, China, to an American father and a British mother who worked as Anglican missionaries. Magee Senior, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania the family of some wealth and influence the Pittsburgh area Magee Senior, disregarding family wealth, chose to become an Episcopal priest and was sent as a missionary to China where he met his wife, she was from Helmingham in Suffolk, England. John and Faith were married in 1921; John Junior was their first-born of four sons, he was born in 1922, followed by David, Christopher and Hugh.
John began his education at the American School, Nanking (1929–1931). In 1931 he moved with his mother to Britain where he continued his education first at St Clare preparatory school near Walmer, Kent (1931–1935).
He was educated at Rugby School from 1935 to 1939. Magee developed his poetry while at Rugby, and in 1938 won the school’s Poetry Prize. He was deeply moved by the roll of honor of Rugby pupils who had fallen in the First World War. This list of the fallen included the celebrated war poet Rupert Brooke (1887–1915), whose work Magee greatly admired and who had also won the school poetry prize 34 years earlier. The poem refers to Brooke’s burial, at 11 o’clock at night in an olive grove on the island of Skyros in Greece.
“Sonnet to Rupert Brooke”
“We laid him in a cool and shadowed grove One evening in the dreamy scent of thyme
Where leaves were green, and whispered high above —A grave as humble as it was sublime; There, dreaming in the fading deeps of light, The hands that thrilled to touch a woman’s hair;
Brown eyes, that loved the Day, and looked on Night, A soul that found at last its answered Prayer… There daylight, as a dust, slips through the trees. And drifting, gilds the fern around his grave – Where even now, perhaps, the evening breeze Steals shyly past the tomb of him who gave New sight to blinded eyes; who sometimes wept A short time dearly loved; and after, slept.”
While at Rugby, Magee met and fell in love with Elinor, the daughter of Headmaster. Elinor Lyon was the inspiration for many of John’s poems. Though Magee’s love was not returned, he remained friends with Elinor and her family through to the end of his life.
Magee visited the United States in 1939. However, due to the outbreak of war, he was unable to return to Britain for his final school year. Instead he attended Avon Old Farms School in Avon, Connecticut. He earned a scholarship to Yale University in July 1940 but did not enroll, choosing instead to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force in October of that year.
Mr. Magee jr. joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in October 1940 and received flight training in the province of Ontario, getting his Wings in June 1941.
Shortly after getting his wings and receiving a promotion of the rank Pilot Officer, Magee was sent to Britain, to be posted to the Operational Training Unit in Landow, Wales to train on the Spitfire. It was while serving there that Magee wrote his poem High Flight.
After graduating from Operational Training Unit #53 at Landow, Magee was assigned to the 412 RCAF Fighter Squadron, which was formed at Digby, England, on June 30, 1941. The motto of the squadron was “Promptus ad vindictam” Latin for: “Swift to avenge”.
Magee, age 19 was later killed, while flying Spitfire. He had taken off from Royal Air Field Wellingore, near Digby, then about three miles northwest of Cranwell, was involved in a mid-air collision with an Airspeed Oxford trainer from Cranwell, flown by Leading Aircraftman Ernest Aubrey Griffin. The two aircraft collided just below the cloud base at about 1,400 feet AGL, at 11:30, over the hamlet of Roxholme. Magee was descending at high speed through a break in the clouds with three other aircraft.
At the inquiry afterwards a farmer testified that he saw the Spitfire pilot struggling to push back the canopy. The pilot stood up to jump from the plane but was too close to the ground for his parachute to open, and died on impact. Griffin was also killed.
Magee is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery, Scopwick in Lincolnshire, England. On his grave are inscribed the first and last lines from his poem High Flight:
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth –Put out my hand and touched the Face of God.”
Part of the official letter to his parents read: “Your son’s funeral took place at Scopwick Cemetery, near Digby Aerodrome, at 2:30 P.M. on Saturday, 13 December 1941, the service being conducted by Flight Lieutenant S. K. Belton, the Canadian padre of this Station. He was accorded full Service Honors, the coffin being carried by pilots of his own Squadron.”
A biography, Sunward I’ve Climbed, The Story of John Magee, Poet and Soldier, 1922 – 1941 was written by Hermann Hagedorn in 1942.
Magee’s posthumous fame rests mainly on his sonnet “High Flight”, started on 18 August 1941, just a few months before his death, while he was based at No. 53 OTU. He had flown up to 33,000 feet in a Spitfire Mk I, his seventh flight in a Spitfire. As he orbited and climbed upward, he was struck with the inspiration of a poem “To touch the face of God.” He completed it later that day after landing.
Purportedly, the first person to read this poem later that same day was fellow Pilot Officer Michael Le Bas, with whom Magee had trained, in the officers’ mess.
Magee enclosed the poem on the back of a letter to his parents. His father, then curate of Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, reprinted it in church publications. The poem became more widely known through the efforts of Archibald McLeish, then Librarian of Congress, who included it in an exhibition of poems called “Faith and Freedom” at the Library of Congress in February 1942. The manuscript copy of the poem remains at the Library of Congress.
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.
Ronald Reagan quoted from “High Flight” in his speech (written by Peggy Noonan) that followed the Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986. He quoted: …”slipped the surly bonds of Earth” to “touch the face of God.”