Inspired by a high altitude test flight, this dazzling poem has added poignancy because John Gillespie McGee (1922-41) died soon after in an air collision with his Spitfire.
It conveys the sweeping thrill and ethereal freedom of flying to great heights, with the plane wheeling and soaring ‘high in the sunlit silence’. I love the sense of amazement at taking his craft beyond even the range of larks and eagles. You sense the little plane joyfully throwing itself into what Lawrence Durrell called ‘these vacant leagues, these drowsy blue immensities of sky’.
The poem is featured on the memorial of the Space Shuttle Challenger and has been regularly recited to raise morale or to commemorate aviators or astronauts.
You may also enjoy the first four in the Poems for my Family series: Lawrence Durrell, John Donne, Robert Frost, and W.B. Yeats.
Photo credits: cocoparisienne at pixabay; Royal Canadia Airforce official picture of John Gillespie McGee, public domain
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silver wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Off sunsplit clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of; wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hovering there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air;
Up, up the long delerious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor even eagle flew;
And while, with silent lifting wind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.