By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Flight is a common trope and topic in poetry, whether it’s the flight of birds or the flight of humans (from Icarus’ doomed flight to the invention of aeroplanes in the early twentieth century).
In this post, we gather together some of the finest poems about flying and flight, taking in everything from aeroplanes to hawks to kestrels to nightingales to … poets themselves, attempting to fly free from the bounds and restrictions of the Earth. If you have your wings ready, let’s dive in.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘To a Skylark’.
The pale purple even
Melts around thy flight;
Like a star of Heaven,
In the broad day-light
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight …
Shelley (1792-1822) completed this, one of his most famous poems, in June 1820. The inspiration for the poem was an evening walk Shelley took with his wife, Mary (author of Frankenstein, of course), in Livorno, in north-west Italy.
Mary later described the circumstances that gave rise to the poem: ‘It was on a beautiful summer evening while wandering among the lanes whose myrtle hedges were the bowers of the fire-flies, that we heard the carolling of the skylark.’ The opening line of the poem gave Noel Coward the title for his play Blithe Spirit.
John Keats, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy …
John Keats (1795-1821) wrote ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, one of his most celebrated poems, in Hampstead in 1819 – sitting under a plum tree, according to one account. (In the same account, he wrote the entire thing in one morning!)
Keats uses the nightingale as a way of talking about death, annihilation, immortality, and, indeed, his own feelings about these subjects – the nightingale being a common symbol for the poet. As the excerpt from the poem quoted above makes clear, flight, for Keats, is as much an act of the human imagination (through poetry) as it is a physical act the bird can perform.
Emily Dickinson, ‘Delight Is As the Flight’.
Delight is as the flight—
Or in the Ratio of it,
As the Schools would say—
The Rainbow’s way—
Flung colored, after Rain,
Would suit as bright,
Except that flight
Were Aliment …
So begins this poem about flight from one of the nineteenth century’s most distinctive poets, which uses flight as a metaphor for life: how high do you soar, how long do you remain in the air?
Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Windhover’.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) thought ‘The Windhover’ the best thing he ever wrote. He wrote it in 1877, during a golden era of creativity for the poet, while he was living in Wales.
The comparison between the kestrel or ‘windhover’ and Christ arises out of Hopkins’s deeply felt Christianity (he was a Jesuit), and the poet’s breathless exhilaration at sighting the bird is brilliantly captured by Hopkins’s distinctive ‘sprung rhythm’. The windhover (better known as the kestrel) rides the wind like a horseman or chevalier, and in turn becomes Jesus, the ‘knight’ who came to save man…
Robert Graves, ‘Flying Crooked’.
Taking the species of butterfly known as the ‘cabbage white’ as its subject, this poem by Robert Graves (1895-1985) is really an extended metaphor for human activity: just because the cabbage white cannot fly straight, unlike the more graceful swift, this doesn’t make the lowly butterfly ‘wrong’ or imperfect. There’s something to be said for ‘flying crooked’, for being different…
John Gillespie Magee, ‘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 . . .
Magee (1922-41) fought and died in the Second World War; he was half-American, born in China, and served in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Magee (1922-41) wrote ‘High Flight’, a sonnet, about the exhilarating experience of flying through the air in a fighter-plane, putting out his hand to ‘touch the face of God’.
Magee was killed in an accidental mid-air collision over England in 1941; his poem gained a new lease of life when President Ronald Reagan quoted from it following the Challenger disaster in 1986.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, ‘History of the Airplane’.
Taking in everything from the Wright Brothers’ powered flight in 1903 to Hiroshima to 9/11, this poem in expansive free verse ponders whether the invention of the aeroplane really did bring ‘peace on earth’, or whether it just gave war the leg-up it wanted.
Anne Sexton, ‘A Story For Rose On The Midnight Flight To Boston’.
Although not as well-known as her near-contemporary Sylvia Plath, Sexton was a fellow Confessional poet – although this poem is less ‘confessional’ and less taboo-breaking than many of her poems, which take on difficult, ‘unpoetic’ themes.
But the rhythms of Sexton’s masterly verse here perfectly capture the way travel can stir up memories in us as we return home: ‘I am almost someone going home.’ Wonderful.
Ted Hughes, ‘The Hawk in the Rain’.
We could have chosen any number of Ted Hughes poems here, but we’ve opted for this early poem from the mid-1950s, which gave its name to the title of Hughes’ first collection (named by Sylvia Plath, who had just begun a relationship with Hughes). ‘Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air’: this is how Hughes describes the hovering of the fearsome hawk in this powerful early poem.
Margaret Atwood, ‘Flying Inside Your Own Body’.
Although far better-known now as a novelist, Atwood is also an accomplished poet, and ‘Flying Inside Your Own Body’ is a gorgeous paean to freedom – embodied by the ‘wings’ in this poem – yet its celebratory qualities are tempered by the acknowledgment that this sort of boundless flight can happen ‘only in dreams’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.