Some people may remember the lines of this poem from Ronald Reagan’s speech on the Challenger Disaster. A friend of mine shared it on Facebook, bringing back those memories for me. The poem High Flight was actually written by John Gillespie Magee, an American pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force in the 2nd World War. He wrote the poem at age nineteen, and was killed a few months later in December of 1941.
John Magee describes flying in an aircraft as a beautiful and unworldly experience:
“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and 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.
Hovering there I’ve chased the shouting wind along
and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.
In dramatic, lyrical poetry, he gives a personification force to basic things: the “shouting wind, laughter silvered wings.” The reader is with him in that “eager craft”in a tumbling mirth, a soaring adventure in those “footless halls of air” – freedom and heavens as the ultimate experience.
Mr. Magee continues the glory of flying:
“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.”
The “delirious burning blue” is reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill where you find “fire green grass.” In this flight, the pilot is up in the sky getting to experience first-hand what so few people get to do especially in that time period. It appears to be a sanctuary almost, a place where he has “touched the face of God” in glory, and then, as fate had it, he was gone.