From afar, Arlington National Cemetery looks like a vast field of dominoes, perfectly aligned in rows and columns that follow the gentle rise and fall of the green Virginia hills. Spread over 624 acres, more than 300,000 gravestones mark the resting place for those brave Americans who have sacrificed their lives for their country. Etched into some of these gravestones are excerpts from the famous poem High Flight, written by American aviator John Gillespie Magee, Jr.. Magee joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in October 1940 (before the U.S. officially entered WWII), was trained in Canada, and eventually was stationed in England, flying Spitfires as part of a fighter squadron. On December 11, 1941, Magee was killed in a mid-air collision near Lincolnshire. Magee was buried at a cemetery in Lincolnshire on December 13, 1941.
Magee wrote the poem, High Flight, between August 18 and September 3, 1941. The sonnet was inspired by one of Magee’s flight (August 18, 1941), when he ascended to a level of 33,000 feet in a Spitfire MKI and recalled a line of poetry: “to touch the face of God.” Soon after he landed, Magee began the poem; when it was completed he wrote it on the back of a letter to his parents. The original is kept at the Library of Congress. Careful analysis of the poems reveals that Magee consciously or unconsciously borrowed phrases from other poems. The Blind Man Flies by Cuthbert Hicks includes the lines:” For I have danced the streets of heaven,/And touched the face of God.” New World by G.W.M Dunn includes the phrases: “on laughter-silvered wings,” “the lifting mind” and “the shouting of the air.” Dominion Over Air published in the RAF College Journal includes the line: “Across the unpierced sanctity of space.” The issue of pure originality notwithstanding, High Flight remains a favorite poem in the military, recited by cadets at the US Air Force Academy, recited at funerals and memorial events, and portions etched in tombstones. The most well-known use of this poem was by Ronald Reagan following the Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986. Bookshelf honors the country’s fallen heroes by presenting Magee’s evocative poem:
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 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.
For further reading: Sunward I’ve Climbed, The Story of John Magee, Poet and Soldier, 1922–1941 by Hermann Hagedorn