© 1992 by Nigel Rees
From Volume 1, Number 2, April 1992 issue of The "Quote... Unquote"® Newsletter
On a bleak winter's day we drove up to a service station in the tiny Lincolnshire village of Scopwick. If there had ever been any poetry about the place it was probably a distant echo of some line of Tennyson's about the utterly flat wolds, but the pump attendant sized us up instantly. `It's Magee you've come to see?' he said, and directed us to a small burial ground (not the church graveyard) a few hundred yards away.
There, amid the score or so military graves from the Second World War--Allied and German--was the gravestone we had indeed come to find. We wanted to see whether it bore Magee's most quoted lines.
"Oh I Have SlippedThe Surly Bonds of Earth... Put Out My HandAnd Touched the Face of God"
How did these lines become so famous? Because they are a classic case of a speechwriter having the appropriate quotation to hand at the right moment. On 28 January 1986, in his TV broadcast to the nation on the day of the space shuttle Challenger disaster, President Reagan concluded: `We will never forget them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.'
This immediately sent people the world over on fruitless journeys to their quotation books. Reagan was quoting `High Flight,' a sonnet written by John Gillespie Magee, a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Second World War. He came to Britain, flew in a Spitfire squadron, and was killed at the age of nineteen on 11 December 1941 during a training flight from the airfield near Scopwick.
Magee had been born in Shanghai of an American father and an English mother who were missionaries. He was educated at Rugby and at school in Connecticut. The sonnet was written on the back of a letter to his parents which stated, `I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed.' The parents were living in Washington, DC, at the time of his death and, according to the Library of Congress book Respectfully Quoted, the poem came to the attention of the Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, who acclaimed Magee as the first poet of the war.
Copies of `High Flight'--sometimes referred to as `the pilot's creed'--were widely distributed and plaques bearing it were sent to all R.C.A.F. air fields and training stations. The poem was published in 1943 in a volume called More Poems from the Forces (which was `dedicated to the USSR'). This is a transcription of the original manuscript in the Library of Congress:
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 falls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor eer 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.
How did the poem come to be quoted by President Reagan in 1986? As it happens, he knew of the poem: `I hadn't heard it in years, but of course I knew it from years back, the war. And I think it was written on a sort of tablet or plaque outside Patti's school that I took her to when she was a young girl.' It transpires that Reagan had also been present the night fellow actor Tyrone Power returned from fighting in the Second World War--a party at which Power recited `High Flight' from memory. (When Power died, the poem was read over his grave by Laurence Olivier.)
It was also used for years as the close-down reading of a local Washington TV station. It was generally well-known in the United States (and much more so than in Britain). One person who learned it at school was Peggy Noonan who wrote the speech for Reagan, as she describes in her book What I Saw at the Revolution (1990). This is not the occasion to discuss the rights and wrongs of speechwriters `going public' and revealing the extent to which they pull strings. Suffice to say, it was a brilliant stroke on Noonan's part to select such an apposite quotation and one it was not too far-fetched to put in Reagan's mouth.
Two footnotes: in his lyrics for the English version of the musical Les Miserables (1985). Herbert Kretzmer blended Magee's words with something from Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (`to know and love another human being is the root of all wisdom') to produce the line: `To love another person is to see the face of God.'
Magee's original words are curiously reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's lines prefixed to his Poems (Paris edition, 1903):
Surely there was a time I might have trod
The sunlit heights, and from life's dissonance
Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God.