Saturday, June 6, 2009

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 windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

—Gillespie Magee
[Photos of Neil Armstrong and moon print courtesy of NASA]


  1. I know this poem is one often quoted, and especially in connection with flight, including space flight. But there is so much more, and I wonder about the timing of your post. I see you do have a photo in remembrance of D-Day in your side-bar.

    To explain, in case the links are entirely in my mind and not in yours, John Gillespie Magee was born to a British mother and an American father. He was educated in both the USA and the UK. He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He wrote the poem in 1941 when based in Wales, training in a Spitfire. It seems very apt that you share this poem on the anniversary of the D-Day landings when the allies combined their forces. In a way he personifies that combination, no?

    It's amazing to think he was only 19 when he wrote those words. He died only a few months later in a flying accident, again in a Spitfire. What a dreadful waste of a talent.

  2. We lost a lot of great pilots, when being a pilot was a very rare thing, early war, in demonstrations, in test flights.

  3. Souberkwit said.... Souberkwit, after writing his comment, was puzzling about one of the things he thought he knew about John Gillespie Magee, which did not make sense, yet seemed to be true, because the internet says so.
    Here it is: if you were to search for JGM on google, and ask where he died, a lot of sources would say, clearly printed, so it must be true, that he died in a mid-air collision ove Tangmere, in the south of England.
    But when he died, it was in a mid-air collision with a trainer out of RAF Cranwell, and Magee was stationed at RAF Digby. The two places are merely a couple of miles apart, in Lincolnshire.
    Tangmere is close on two hundred miles away. Trainers especially in wartime don't tend to stray far from home, Tangmere? How likely is it that two planes from adjacent airbases try to occupy the same piece of sky at the same moment two hundred miles from home? The internet, DAMMIT! is WRONG!.
    In fact, Magee was taking off, and collided with the trainer in patchy low cloud at about four hundred feet over Roxholme, in Lincolnshire, about half way between RAF Digby and RAF Cranwell.

    Have I checked my facts now? Yes. How am I sure? Because for a while, in the nineties, my brother in law was the commanding officer of RAF Digby, which has a great respect for the memory of John Gillespie Magee, (whose remains lie in the nearby Scopwick Church's graveyard).

    Magee died four days after Pearl Harbor, three days after the U.S. eventually decided that sitting on the fence, and watching, was no longer an option. His parents did not open the letter containing this poem until several months later.


    Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
    And hovered out of ground effect on semi-rigid blades;
    Earthward I've auto'ed,
    and met the rising brush
    Of non-paved terrain - and done a thousand things
    You would never care to -
    skidded and drooped and flared
    Low in the heat-soaked roar.
    Confined there,
    I've chased the earthbound traffic, and lost
    The race to insignificant headwinds.
    Forward, and a little up, in ground effect
    I've topped the General's hedge with drooping turns
    Where never Skyhawk, or even Phantom flew.
    And, shaking and pulling collective, I've lumbered
    The low trespassed halls of Victor Airways,
    Put out my hand, and touched a tree.

  5. Oh! I've slipped through the swirling clouds of dust,
    a few feet from the dirt,
    I've flown the Phantom low enough,
    to make my bottom hurt.
    I've TFO'd the deserts, hills,
    valleys and mountains too,
    Frolicked in the trees,
    where only flying squirrels flew.
    Chased the frightened cows along,
    disturbed the ram and ewe
    And done a hundred other things,
    that you'd not care to do.
    I've smacked the tiny sparrow,
    bluebird, robin, all the rest,
    I've ingested baby eaglets,
    simply sucked them from their nest!
    I've streaked through total darkness,
    just the other guy and me,
    And spent the night in terror of
    things I could not see.
    I've turned my eyes to heaven,
    as I sweated through the flight,
    Put out my shaking hand and touched
    the master caution light.

  6. Sheesh! as our host would no doubt say, if he were around to say it. Next we'll get the history of skips, or the ersatz tyres or..., who knows what?

  7. Just stopping in to say hi. I know someone who to this day insists no man ever walked on the moon. Just sayin, I love ignorant people. NOT!

  8. @A. - He joined the RCAF because (I think) the U.S. wasn't yet in the war. A lot of young men did that. Ironically, he was killed only 4 days after Pearl Harbor, but at least he died knowing the U.S. was in the war.

    @Stephanie B - So true. Too many. One can't help but wonder how the world would have been changed had some of these people now been lost.

    @Ettarose - Hi. :) Good to see you. You, know, I get those people from time to time too and I can't figure out why they would deny it. To each his own, I guess. I mean, of course they could probably have dummied up something like Hollywood would have, but all the years and flights before that seems like a heck of a lot of trouble for a lie. Oh, well. I think there is still a "Flat World" society too. :) Take care.

    @A. - Again I remind you about talking directly to my guests. Thank you. :)

    (What the heck did you just say???)

    @Soubriquet - You never cease to amaze (and amuse) me. :) I think it is very interesting that your relative was at that same base later. Small world, no? Ummm... the U.S. was hardly sitting on the fence for those first 2 years. We will discuss that further sometime.

    Back when tv stations used to go off the air at midnight, the poem - with its accompanying monochrome video of a fighter jet, of course - was shown at sign off, just before the national anthem. I'm not sure why the poem popped into my mind. I think because I was thinking of some of the things Stephanie had brought up, and because space travel, and the early pioneers, were on my mind.

    I'm not sure what to make of your irreverent companion poems. It reminds me of your response, dredged up from college days I think, to the Desiderata a while back. Don't change.:)

  9. @Soubriquet - I acknowledge you mentioned he died right after Pearl Harbor, before I mentioned it. :)

    A. didn't know that. Well, she knew the date he died, but Dec. 7, 1941 means nothing to A.

  10. It seemed to me that there must be some parodies of High Flight, and so there were. I wrote neither of them, of course.

    The airbase in question, RAF Digby, was in the news recently when an Air Cadets officer was struck by lightning whilst cooking at a fundraising barbecue.
    When he regained consciousness, all he could say was "Sausages, sausages."

    RAF Digby whilst nominally an air-force base, has a navy and army contingent too. And it has personnel from all the United States services too.

    It has not been a flying base since 1953.

    There is a Spitfire at the gate as a reminder of Digby's wartime history, but this one is not a real one, it's just a very good replica. Apparently real spitfires are so sought after that the old gate-guardian went off to be restored to fly again.

    Raf Digby was originally called RAF Scopwick, after the nearest village, however, once upon a time, it is said, the commander there was fuming, and irate, as engine parts and machine tools desperately needed to keep a squadron flying were long overdue, yet the people at the supply depot swore they'd been sent, and signed for a couple of weeks ago.
    The C.O. issued threats, and informed the Air Ministry that it was not his fault that his squadrons were unable to fly.
    Meanwhile, in North Wales, a stores officer from RAF Shotwick was trying to find space for crates of spares which were for an aircraft type they did not have, and machine tools too.....

  11. I did not leave that
    how apropos"
    comment. It seems there is a troll stalking me.



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