The Spiritual Meaning of John Gillespie Magee’s Poem “High Flight”

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth,” or so begins John Gillespie Magee’s 1941 poem, “High Flight.” The sentiment is fairly straightforward if one knows the poem was written from the perspective of an aircraft in the upper atmosphere. At a deeper level, the sonnet is an exclamation point to a teenager’s struggle with feelings of entrapment. It is the song of a soul’s escape from the heavy burdens of life to soar the heavens with nothing less than joy.

When in 1939 John Magee was restricted by the US State Department from travel at the onset of Great Britain’s war against Germany he was devastated. He had gone to America at the request of his father to reacquaint himself with the paternal half of his heritage, having been raised mostly in England. Even when travel reopened, his passport was canceled. Just seventeen at the time, he was compelled to complete his high school education in Connecticut.

John resented both America and the school he attended, which he felt was intellectually behind his school in England. His parents had to have been happy that circumstances held him in the US out of harm’s way, but they became the recipients of a series of letters bemoaning his fate. Paraphrasing from several letters written in 1939-1940, John wrote (1):

“I have been under a sort of emotional stress ever since the war began…. I am so longing to get back to help out. Don’t you believe a man should live by his convictions? I am convinced my place is in England, and if ever I see the opportunity, I’m coming.”

“…Something in me is dying, irrevocably, irretrievably; I am beginning simply to exist whereas before, at any rate at moments, I lived. …I realize, deep down, that I have had my fill of it, yet there is a sort of futility in trying to escape from the demands of its existence. To get away from it all, to walk again on the beach at Kingsdown, and feel the freshening wind on one’s face, and wonder, perhaps, if there are any chocolate biscuits left for tea! There was an ecstasy there, and I was damned (in every sense of the word) into overlooking it in all my blindness.”

In September, 1940, he was positioned to enter Yale on scholarship, but he instead enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a means of returning to England. Because of the backlog of recruits, it would still be a grueling four months before he would start basic training, and then he would undergo a further five months of flight and aerial combat training. Once he received his wings and commission as a pilot officer, he embarked upon a month-long naval convoy across the Atlantic with a two-week layover in Iceland.

John’s yearning to reunite with England does not mean that he was the proverbial Sad Sack. When he learned to fly, he did so with abandon. On his second solo flight, he put his Fleet Flinch into a spin to experience the thrill of imminent death and recovery. In doing so he triggered an inverted spin and lost consciousness before reawakening and finally pulling out of it. His instructor watched the whole event from the ground and treated him to a couple more spins to allay any phobias he might develop. John engaged fellow students in fake dogfights and even chased after aircraft from other air bases. Prone to mishaps, he cartwheeled a Harvard trainer on the runway after misjudging his proximity to the ground in the dark. Instructors always threatened to wash him out, or at the very least write him up so that he wouldn’t become anything more than a sergeant, but he consistently scored near the top of his class on exams. The RCAF was obligated to advance its brightest pilots, and those who took chances were especially needed at the front.

John finally began his training on the Supermarine Spitfire at RAF Llandow in Wales in August of 1941, nearly two years after being marooned in America. The honor of his new commission as an officer did little to deter his daredevil whims. He often buzzed the homes and gathering places of friends and family from Rugby to Devon. He also commandeered aircraft to visit Elinor Lyon, the love of his life.

John had his serious side. While at Llandow, he learned how to handle the Spitfire in formation flying, learned to excel in combat maneuvers, learned to shoot at the enemy on his tail, learned to shoot his camera guns at a moving target while avoiding getting hit. He pushed the limits of the Spitfire’s capabilities as well as his own, staying airborne as long as he had the fuel. He’d been to 20,000 feet where oxygen was needed for dog-fighting practice, but his mind was so focused on the exercises that he couldn’t fully appreciate the heights. In rare moments he managed to escape the group and fly off on his own. “I felt like Icarus about to singe his wings,” he wrote his parents.

On the eighteenth of August, as a mere eleven-day veteran on the Spitfire, he took his aircraft higher than ever before, “even higher than Mount Everest.” In my novel, A Day in Eternity, I describe his experience:

“… Now he was suddenly caught by the way the sun’s rays shattered on his bubble-top canopy, and how the clouds created cathedral-like vaults across the azure sky. … Looping, rolling, diving, and turning within the lower reaches of earth’s stratosphere at speeds of more than 350 miles per hour made his heart pump adrenalin throughout his body. The pulling of G-forces caused his mind to dislocate, and he felt his own consciousness project outside of himself. At once he sensed a protected closeness to what he could only describe as a benevolent power. The sensation stunned him, and he marveled at the wonder of his expanded universe. He was Icarus who escaped the Labyrinth prison on make-shift wings and flew precariously close to the sun. He knew with certainty that he’d been given the gift of life so that he could discover this secret.”

Sometime in the previous months, John Magee had picked up a book of poetry entitled, Icarus: An Anthology of the Poetry of Flight, compiled by R de la Bere and “three flight cadets of the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell.” In recent years, a few have claimed that lines in John’s poem, “High Flight,” were plagiarized from poetry in the book. The mystical experience must have reminded him of a couple of stanzas from a poem called, “The Blind Man Flies,” by Cubbert Hicks, published in the Icarus anthology. Here is an excerpt from that poem (2):

I learnt from the air to-day
(On a bird’s wings I flew)
That the earth could never contain
All of the God I knew.
I felt the blue mantle of space,
And kissed the cloud’s white hem,
I heard the stars’ majestic choir,
And sang my praise with them.
Now joy is mine through my long night,
I do not feel the rod,
For I have danced the streets of heaven,
And touched the face of God.

The following paragraphs from A Day in Eternity describe how “High Flight” might have emerged:

John figured that only a few hundred men, if that many, had ever experienced the jubilation of flying alone at such an altitude. Fewer still had experienced the truth that God was not limited to church or temple, he thought. God did not belong to any one religion, God could not even be contained on the planet below him. God was a power that was everywhere! John Magee, via the Supermarine Spitfire, was but a citizen of this celestial city where he could indeed explore and dance the streets of heaven.

He felt indebted to Hicks for having shown him this truth, but the poem didn’t go far enough in describing the ecstasy he had experienced. Upon landing he performed his post-flight duties as quickly as he could, then he rushed back to his bunk and searched for any scrap of paper on which he could fill in the lyrics to the iambic-pentameter rhythm beating like a heart within his most inner being.

He began with his favorite line of the Hicks poem— “touched the face of God.” This would be the crowning jewel of his sonnet, but he needed to show how he had rocketed to the pinnacle of his mind and then transcended it to enter the rarefied strata of divinity. Other poets in the Icarus anthology provided further lines of inspiration: “on laughter-silvered wings,” “the lifting mind,” “the shouting of the air,” and “across the unpierced sanctity of space.” His finished creation would not be entirely original, but he didn’t think that mattered. What mattered was preserving the euphoria he’d experienced tens of thousands of feet above the earth so that he could remember it when he descended to the depths of combat hell.

With the encouragement of instructors and fellow students, he copied the complete sonnet on the third of September, 1941. “I am enclosing a verse I composed the other day,” he wrote in a letter to his family the next morning. “It started at 30,000 feet and was finished soon after I landed. Thought it might interest you.” This was the poem he hastily penned on the back of a sheet of thin, blue stationary:

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 …
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept 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.

John Magee was two people. The first persona was that of a sensitive poet and the second a rabble-rousing adrenaline junkie. John Magee self-published a booklet of his poems in 1939 at Avon Old Farms School in Connecticut. The forward to this booklet hints at the way he used poetry to reconcile his dual personalities:

“…the sole reason for the publication of these immature verses is that they may possibly be acceptable to the more indulgent as representing various emotional conflicts occurring in the life of a boy between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, and that they may, perhaps, bring back to the reader, if readers there be, something of his or her own youth, when Wonder was fighting for life in the teeth of Pride, and Love lay shivering under the howling winds of adolescent Cynicism.”

John Magee was to write one more poem, entitled “Per Ardua,” before his death on December 11, 1941, about three months after sending “High Flight” to his parents. He was 19.

  1. The John Gillespie Magee, Jr.,materials are archived in the John G. Magee Family Papers, Record Group No. 242, Special Collections, Yale Divinity School Library.
  2. Icarus: An Anthology of the Poetry of Flight by R de la Bere (Macmillan, London, 1938), contains the poem, “The Blind Man Flies,” by Cuthbert Hicks.

A Day in Eternity is currently available in all formats on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and most places where ebooks are sold.
Softcover, 5.5×8.5, 280 pages, Print ISBN: 978-0983983828, Digital ISBN: 978-0-9839838-3-5

John Gillespie Magee Loved Elinor Lyon

(Photo: Elinor Bruce Lyon in Women’s Royal Naval Service uniform in 1942. John Gillespie Magee, Jr., in Royal Canadian Air Force Uniform, 1941.)

John Gillespie Magee, Jr., the WWII poet and fighterpilot who wrote “High Flight,” the anthem of aviators for seventy-five years, left the world with an even greater legacy—more than a hundred letters detailing the angst of a teenager in a war-torn world. Sprinkled throughout the letters are his sentiments for a young lady named Elinor Lyon. The relationship between John and Elinor is featured in my novel, A Day in Eternity.

John and Elinor’s Childhood Friendship

Elinor Lyon was the prim daughter of the headmaster at Rugby School in England where John attended. Because John’s own father was a missionary in China, the Lyon family took him on frequent holidays, during which time John and Elinor were free to frolic the hills and lakeshores of England. Given their literary interests we can guess the conversations touched on literature and poetry.

John was expected to become a great literary mind, particularly for his poetry. He learned to compose poetry because Elinor herself wrote it. Now, John was a rebellious as a teenager by Rugby standards. He preferred to climb clock towers or read Goethe rather than concentrate on Demosthenes. “Plenty of time, we say, for Beauty afterward,” he wrote. “Suppose there is no afterward?” He despised the routine of school and pursued his own studies. Even so, he won the coveted Poetry Prize at Rugby for a poem entitled “Brave New World,” a deeply philosophical look at life from the perspective of death.

John Magee’s Brave New World

Who knows what might have blossomed between John and Elinor in time had war not interrupted them? John sailed the Queen Mary to America in August of 1939, mere weeks before England entered war with Germany. Elinor had already been ensconced in a Swiss school for months by then. John, being an American citizen through his father, was barred by the State Department from returning to England, and when travel reopened to US citizens, his passport was inexplicably canceled. He begrudgingly completed his secondary education at a prep school in Connecticut and won a scholarship to Yale to begin in the fall of 1940.

Once he was marooned in America, though, he began to miss the “rushing intellectual streams” of England despite his previous criticism that the school demanded scholastic conformity. Desperate to return, he launched a letter campaign upon his parents that included the rationale of Plato, among many other works.

Was it boredom that made him so anxious, or was it that he missed Elinor? He had dedicated a book of poetry to someone bearing her initials, EBL, which he handcrafted on a real press at the Connecticut prep school. Not that John didn’t pursue other love interests. While sailing on the Queen Mary to America in 1939, he spent sunsets and sunrises with many a member of the girl’s music band on board. He enjoyed the company of a handful of girls who traveled in the circle of his wealthy aunt in Pennsylvania and later while he completed his high school studies in Connecticut. He even became engaged, supposedly, but it was Elinor who held his heart.

Rather than take advantage of his Yale scholarship upon graduation, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Luftwaffe air attack on Britain in September of 1940. Learning to become a fighterpilot seemed to be his only chance to return to England, and in doing so he discovered a talent for flying and a thrill for danger. What Roosevelt had called the “aerodrome of democracy,” the Canadian skies became an arena for his winged escapades.

John’s poetry composition crawled to a halt at this point, but he continued writing letters. So many young men had enlisted in the RCAF that John had to wait two months just to start basic training. This period gave him plenty of time to stew over his decision. Subject matter for his poetry often focused on his death, and this didn’t change for his letters. He wrote: “Eulogies might say of me: ‘A voice raised in joyous song has been silenced.’ Or: ‘A star has fallen out of the literary heavens, leaving a shining peace under the night.’ How utterly hilarious and almost Rabelaisian in its absurdity. How about: ‘The young flier converted by journalists into a sort of worshiping Dante, starry-eyed over his Beatrice, his Holy Grail?'” He added: “That’s why I hoped that if I died, it would be in circumstances violently heroic so that they would never know.” We have to guess that his secret Beatrice was none other than Elinor Lyon.

Elinor Lyon’s Own Imaginative Poetry

Elinor was a shy poet; few of her verses ever reached the light of day and then only in the wake of John’s biographies. She had composed in simple rhymes and copied them into journals beginning in 1934 and ending in 1944. In her early years she wrote about knights and child spies and nature. Poetry for her teenage years became a cathartic release over love lost and the tragedies of war.

Unfortunately, correspondence between Elinor and John was not archived, but there is evidence that they wrote each other. For instance, he thanked his mother in a letter for sending one of Elinor’s letters to him, one that he’d searched for everywhere. What I’d give to read this letter given he’d felt so desperate to find it. Did they exchange drafts of their poetry? Their themes often dovetailed and expressed the same sense of yearning and introspection. In June, 1940, Elinor wrote the following poem, titling it “Imagined Scene”:

You stood on the hill, where the trees were sombre,
Tall and dark overhead,
The cool air flowed down after the thunder,
The sky was calmed of dread.
Still and kind hung the clouds, caressed
By the weary touch of the air;
Silent I waited, until quite suddenly
You turned and saw me there.

Years earlier, in the book dedicated to Elinor, John included this poem, which seems reminiscent of Elinor’s “Imagined Scene”:

Always you come, a precious ghost, to haunt
The days, the nights; —in sudden, waking dreams
I find your face; you smile, you beckon; —flaunt
Your lovely self before my eyes; it seems.

To love is pain! But did you really care?
Have you forgotten? —Is it all in vain
To breathe out sonnets to the midnight air,
To long to touch your hands, your lips again?

I know that some day I shall find you
Alone, and in the evening shade of trees;
Twilight, and hills, and quietness behind you
A scent I shall remember in the breeze …

John and Elinor Reunite

After two years abroad, Elinor and John finally reunited in England in the summer of 1941. He was a commissioned Pilot Officer by then and learning to master the Spitfire. First chance he got, he grabbed an old plane at the air base in Wales and flew himself to meet the Lyon family on a fruit-picking holiday in the Cotswalds. He returned the following day, and for several days thereafter he buzzed their lodging with his Spitfire. When weather turned bad, he took a train and stayed overnight. He also rendezvoused with Elinor in Oxford where she attended college, she feeling bad that she was reading Milton while her friends were at war. He wrote about these encounters in his letters home, testifying that this remarkable woman was the one for him, despite the fact that he still enjoyed chance meetings with other women in the pubs.

Elinor’s journal contained many entries like the above-mentioned “Imagined Scene,” but there is no indication that any of the poems were composed with John in mind prior to the fall of 1941. She did mention the initials of others in her footnotes. Reading between the lines, it is apparent that she’d had a few attractions and disappointments where her own heart is concerned.

However, the following excerpt from a poem she called “Falling Stars” was written the same month John returned to England, and it seems she wrote it for him:

Yet when the winter frosts are fierce,
And shattered stars spin down;
I think, there flies a nobler heart,
Through agonies to a crown.

She added this note at the bottom: “I do mean this.”

So can we say that John was the young flier converted by journalists into a sort of worshiping Dante, starry-eyed over his Beatrice? Can we say that Elinor was his Beatrice? Yes, and here’s why. On August 18th John began composing his sonnet, “High Flight.” “It started at 30,000 feet and was finished soon after I landed,” he wrote in a letter to his parents. In a previous letter written on August 17th, he wrote that it was Elinor’s birthday and that he would call her if he could think of something to say. It is my contention, or at least my imagining, that he did call her on her birthday, and then elated from the call, he experienced an epiphany while flying the Spitfire the next day.

In November of 1941, she wrote “Hymn for an Airman” which seems to be a foreshadowing:

For thee no tears, no vigil,
No tomb, no frozen shroud;
But thou shalt soar far over
The vaulted sky embowed,
To life beyond the morning
In light that knows no cloud.

Her note at the bottom said, “For JGM. The danger is always there. Don’t forget it.”

For her part, Elinor later confessed to John’s biographer an affection for him and said she enjoyed his humor and intellect. Even so, she thought him immature, she being a full ten months older than he. John had to know of Elinor’s lack of enthusiasm for a romance, but that didn’t stop him from thinking that he made headway with her every time they met after their reunion in England.

Elinor married a different RAF pilot, one who was a substitute English teacher at Rugby. While raising her children, she wrote children’s novels. One of her series was about Ian and Sovra, young adventurers who got themselves in and out of scrapes. When they were together, Elinor had called John by the Scottish version of his name, Ian. I wonder … .

  1. The letters of John Gillespie Magee, Jr., are archived in the John G. Magee Family Papers, Record Group No. 242, Special Collections, Yale Divinity School Library.
  2. Elinor Lyon’s unpublished poetry and notes (used with permission by her son, Roger Wright) are archived at the Seven Stories, National Centre for Children’s Books in New Castle, U.K.

A Day in Eternity explores Elinor and John’s relationship.

Currently available in all formats on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and most places where ebooks are sold.
Softcover, 5.5×8.5, 280 pages, Print ISBN: 978-0983983828, Digital ISBN: 978-0-9839838-3-5