Graphic Arts As Literature

When words don’t fail

By Burl Burlingame

IN HIS RESPONSE to the Challenger disaster in 1988, President Ronald Reagan spoke of "slipping the surly bonds of earth" and "touching the face of God." Many were struck by the eloquence of the reference -- unearthed by Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan -- and phrases from the original poetry entered the national consciousness.


It was quoted again by Sen. John Glenn during astronaut Alan Shepard's memorial service; by actor/aviator Cliff Robertson at the National Aviation Hall of Fame induction ceremony; sung by John Denver (in "Flight (The Higher We Fly)"; and the Columbia catastrophe has revived interest in the original work.

It's called "High Flight," and it was a scrap of poetry written by John Gillespie Magee, a British- American fighter pilot who left his freshman class at Yale to fight in the Battle of Britain.

Magee had a way with words. "An aeroplane," he wrote home during flight school in Canada, "is not to us a weapon of war, but a flash of silver slanting the skies; the hum of a deep-voiced motor; a feeling of dizziness; it is speed and ecstacy."

The ecstasy he felt wringing out Spitfire fighters among the daunting clouds led to jotting impressions on the back of an envelope in mid-air. As he explained the creation of "High Flight" in a letter to his parents, who lived in Washington, D.C.: "I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed. I thought it might interest you."

The poem, written in pencil, was enclosed. A few weeks later, Magee was involved in a mid-air collision and fell to his death. He was 19 years old. His grave lies in Lincolnshire, England.

The sonnet came to the attention of Archibald MacLeish, then the Librarian of Congress. He included it in an exhibition of poems of "faith and freedom" at the Library of Congress in February 1942, and Orson Welles made an audio recording. The poem resonated among aviators, and the Royal Canadian Air Force distributed it on plaques to airfields.

The original, faded penciled poem and Magee's letters are in the Library of Congress. Reprintings vary in punctuation and capitalization. The version illustrated here follows Magee's notated original as closely as possible.



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 nor 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

John Gillespie Magee


Call Me / Jon Murakami

Artists are invited to submit comic strips that reflect life in Hawaii for publication in "Strip Show." Send work to Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 7 Waterfront Plaza, Suite 210, Honolulu 96813; or e-mail

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