John Magee, John Denver, and High Flight

John Magee began composing the poem “High Flight” while flying a Spitfire 30,000 feet over England in 1941.   He finished it after landing and mailed it to his parents.

John Denver loved flying and was the son of a U.S. Air Force test pilot.  John Denver set John Magee’s poem to music.  Watch and listen on U-tube.  As a bonus, he’s chatting with Bob Hope during the introduction.  “High Flight” is also available, in several color and black-and-white versions, on U-tube.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr., enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940.  John had just turned 18. Hitler’s army was bombing England.  The United States wanted to stay out of the war, but some Americans thought it was time to join the fight against the Nazi onslaught.  John had a special reason to do that because of many happy times with his grandmother in England.

John’s story is well told, with illustrations, in the book High Flight by Linda Granfield.

The pilots needed in England were trained in Canada because German bombing made it almost impossible to practice there.  By the end of September, 1941, when John finished training in Canada and was shipped to England, the Battle of Britain had been won and English pilots were fighting the Germans in France.  John fought his first air battle near Dunkirk, France, in November.  

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the war.

On December 11, John was practicing wing formation flying in England.   As he descended through a layer of clouds, he collided with a plane below him and was killed instantly.

A few weeks before, he had sent the poem to his parents and a local newspaper published it.  It was published again after his death, with a lament for the fallen, and in his parents’ church bulletin.  Copies of the poem with John’s portrait and a drawing of his plane, a Spitfire, were sent to every airfield in the British Empire.

Over the next four years, while World War II dragged on, John’s poem gave war-weary civilians, soldiers and pilots, words that lifted their spirits, words that spoke of the glories of flight, not the ravages of war.  His words inspired hope and courage.

In 1944, Johns brother Christopher, a sixteen-year-old in the Combat Merchant Marine, stood on an oil tanker deck and heard actor Orson Welles’s voice on the loudspeaker:  “I now want to recite for you what I believe to be the finest poem to come out of this war…”

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.

You will find “High Flight” printed in air cadet handbooks.  Apollo 15 pilot James Irwin carried a copy to the moon.  It’s quoted on headstones in Arlington National Cemetery.  President Ronald Reagan quoted it after the death of seven astronauts on the Challenger.