By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth’: so begins one of the most celebrated poems about flight ever written. Unlike earlier, Romantic poems written about birds in flight, ‘High Flight (An Airman’s Ecstasy)’ sees man taking to the skies, thanks to the early twentieth-century invention of the aeroplane. Here’s the poem ‘High Flight’, followed by some words of analysis.
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 ever 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.
‘High Flight (An Airman’s Ecstasy)’ is the one well-known poem by John Gillespie Magee (1922-41), an Anglo-American fighter pilot who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force. The poem is a curious mixture of the English or Shakespearean sonnet and the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet: the first eight lines (otherwise known as the octave) follow the ababcdcd pattern of the former, while the last six lines (or sestet) are rhymed efegfg, which muddles up the usual order we would find in the Shakespearean sonnet (usually efefgg).
The poem is ‘romantic’ in the sense that T. E. Hulme used the word: celebrating the boundlessness and potential of flight, the escapism and possibility that the modern aeroplane offers to man. Writing in 1912, Hulme had drawn a distinction between ‘romanticism’ and ‘classicism’:
What I mean by classical in verse, then, is this. That even in the most imaginative flights there is always a holding back, a reservation. The classical poet never forgets this finiteness, this limit of man. He remembers always that he is mixed up with earth. He may jump, but he always returns back; he never flies away into the circumambient gas.
However, in romantic verse, man can, and often does, fly away into the circumambient gas: man is capable of flight. John Gillespie Magee’s poem celebrates the act of flight as a means of transcending or ‘slipp[ing] the surly bonds of Earth’, rather than having to confine himself, in Hulme’s phrase, to being ‘mixed up with earth’. The ‘air’ or sky through which the poet flies is described as ‘footless halls’: ‘footless’ both in having no bottom but also in being measureless (in feet or other units).
Not only this, but Magee’s plane, he declares, enables him to fly higher than larks or eagles: machine has allowed man to transcend the boundaries of the natural world and exceed what nature can do. In the final lines of the poem, we almost leave the natural behind for the supernatural, as space is described as having a ‘sanctity’ to it, while Magee feels as though he can put his hand out and touch God’s face. This ‘delirious’ sonnet is romantic through-and-through, in the truest sense of Hulme’s term. Man has become almost a god himself.
Magee died in December 1941, during an accidental mid-air collision over the hamlet of Roxholme, in Lincolnshire, England. Both he and the pilot of the other plane were killed. ‘High Flight’ assured him a certain degree of literary immortality. Whether he touched the face of God, as Ronald Reagan said of the victims of the Challenger disaster in 1986, we cannot say.