Something to Think About on A Chilly Friday

Sunset in Cap Pele, 2009I was doing my morning reading from a wonderful book of inspirational poems, and today"™s excerpt was called “High Flight.” I"™d read these words before but had never known who was the writer, so like any self-respecting internet junkie, I did a search to find out who the author was and discovered it was John Gillespie Magee, Jr. But there"™s a story behind this sonnet, and a rather interesting one as well.

According to Wikipedia, Magee was born in Shanghai, China, to an American father and a British mother who worked as Anglican missionaries. In 1939 he moved to the USA to live with his aunt in Pittsburgh and attended Avon Old Farms School in Avon, Connecticut. He earned a scholarship to Yale University – where his father was then a chaplain – in July 1940 but did not enroll, choosing instead to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force in October of that year.

He received flight training in Ontario at Toronto, Trenton, St. Catharines, and Uplands and passed his Wings Test in June 1941. Shortly after being awarded his Wings and being promoted to Pilot Officer, Magee was sent to Britain and was posted to No. 53 Operational Training Unit (OTU) in RAF Llandow, Wales to train on the Supermarine Spitfire. It was while at #53 OTU that Magee wrote High Flight.

Magee was killed at the age of 19, whilst flying Spitfire VZ-H, serial number AD-291. The aircraft was involved in a mid-air collision with an Airspeed Oxford trainer from RAF Cranwell, flown by Leading Aircraftman Ernest Aubrey. The two aircraft collided in cloud cover at about 400 feet AGL, at 11:30, over the village of Roxholm which lies between RAF Cranwell and RAF Digby, in Lincolnshire. Magee was descending at the time. At the inquiry afterwards a farmer testified that he saw the Spitfire pilot struggling to push back the canopy. The pilot stood up to jump from the plane but was too close to the ground for his parachute to open, and died on impact. Magee is buried at Holy Cross, Scopwick Cemetery in Lincolnshire, England. On his grave are inscribed the first and last lines from his poem High Flight, which is what I read this morning.

Here"™s this amazing piece of prose that started off my morning:

“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 nor 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."  

Magee is buried at Holy Cross, Scopwick Cemetery in Lincolnshire, England. On his grave are inscribed the first and last lines from his poem High Flight:

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth –

Put out my hand and touched the Face of God.”

What a wonderful epitaph for a man who gave us all such a glorious sonnet.

Something lovely indeed to ponder on a very chilly December Friday morning on the windswept East Coast.

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