High Flight and other poems by John Gillespie Magee, Jr

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.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr. wrote High Flight just before his death in a mid-air collision over Lincolnshire during World War II, serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was nineteen.

It’s still one of the most beautiful sonnets I’ve ever read. That’s probably because I’ve always wanted to go skydiving, but still.

Magee was a natural. When he was sixteen he wrote his Sonnet to Rupert Brooke. Quoting Wikipedia:

“He attended Rugby School from 1935 to 1939. He developed his poetry whilst at the school and in 1938 he won the school’s Poetry Prize. He was deeply moved by the roll of honour 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. Brooke had won the school poetry prize thirty-four years prior to Magee. The prize-winning poem by Magee referred to Brooke’s burial at 11 o’clock at night in an olive grove on the Greek island of Skyros.”

Here’s the poem:

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.

Here’s Per Ardua, possibly the last poem Magee wrote. Wikipedia: “Shortly after Magee’s first combat action on November 8, 1941, he sent his family part of another poem, referring to it as “another trifle which may interest you”. … There are several corrections to the poem, made by Magee, which suggest that the poem was not completed when he sent it.”

(To those who gave their lives to England during the Battle of
Britain and left such a shining example to us who follow,
these lines are dedicated.)

They that have climbed the white mists of the morning;
They that have soared, before the world’s awake,
To herald up their foeman to them, scorning
The thin dawn’s rest their weary folk might take;
Some that have left other mouths to tell the story
Of high, blue battle, quite young limbs that bled,
How they had thundered up the clouds to glory,
Or fallen to an English field stained red.
Because my faltering feet would fail I find them
Laughing beside me, steadying the hand
That seeks their deadly courage –
Yet behind them
The cold light dies in that once brilliant Land ….
Do these, who help the quickened pulse run slowly,
Whose stern, remembered image cools the brow,
Till the far dawn of Victory, know only
Night’s darkness, and Valhalla’s silence now?


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