The writer of ‘High Flight’ was John Gillespie Maggee Jr.: a World War II Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot. He wrote the sonnet ‘High Fight’ only a few months before his death. He was killed in December of 1941, shot down while flying his Spitfire. This poem was included in a letter that Magee wrote to his parents in September of that same year. His father had it printed in Saint John Episcopal Church’s publication.
It is important to note that the final line, specifically the phrase “touched the face of God” comes from another poem, ‘The Blind Man Flies’ by Cuthbert Hicks. Maggee recalled these words while flying and was inspired to include them in his own poem.
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Summary of High Flight
The bulk of ‘High Flight’ is spent depicting, through techniques such as alliteration, sibilance, and personification, the experience of flying. The speaker’s descriptions are joyous and upliftings. He describes the sensations of being separated from the earth and in parts of the sky even birds don’t enter into. The experience is all in all, a spiritual one that brings him closer to God.
Structure of High Flight
‘High Flight’ by John Gillespie Magee is a three-stanza poem that is separated into two sets of four lines, known as quatrains, and one set of six lines, known as a sextet. There are in total fourteen lines in this piece, making this poem a sonnet. But, unlike most sonnets, it does not follow the traditional Shakespearean or Petrarchan pattern, at least not completely. The first two stanzas follow a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD and the third stanza rhymes: EFEGFG. Additionally, Magee consistently uses ten syllables per line, a feature consistent with sonnets.
Poetic Techniques in High Flight
Magee makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘High Flight’. These include, but are not limited to, alliteration, sibilance, enjambment, and personification. The latter, personification, occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. For example, in the third line of the second stanza where he describes the wind as “shouting” and in the first stanza where the flight is depicted as dancing and the wings of the plane as “laughter-silvered”.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “burning blue” in the first line of the second stanza. Sibilance is similar to alliteration but it is concerned with soft vowel sounds such as “s” and “th”. This kind of repetition usually results in a prolonged hissing or rushing sound. It is often used to mimic another sound, like water, wind, or any kind of fluid movement. For example, “slipped” and “surly” in the first line of the poem and “unsurpassed sanctity of space” in stanza three.
Enjambment occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza and two and three of the third.
Analysis of 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
In the first stanza of ‘High Flight’ the speaker begins by celebrating the feeling of flight. He describes slipping free of the “surly bonds of earth”. He’s left behind the heavyweight of day to day life. Using a series of words that begin with or include the letter “s,” Magee gives more detail to the experience. Personification is also used to describe the clouds, how the plane moved through the sky, and the joy the speaker felt. His experiences in the sky have supplied him with the knowledge that few have. This is emphasized in the next stanza.
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.
The second quatrain describes some of the things that the speaker has done that “You have not dreamed of”. He has spun and “soared and swung” through the sky and been within the “sunlight silence”. As a close reader will immediately note, the “s” words are continuing, a technique is known as sibilance. These are used to mimic the rush of air around the plane.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high unsurpassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
In the third stanza of High Flight,’ the speaker uses repetition to mimic the climb of the plane “Up, up” through the sky into areas that even the strongest birds don’t touch. He has been where “never far, or even eagle flew”. There is something incredibly special about this fact and he’s trying to convey it through his joyous tone.
In the final three lines, the poem turns inward, expressing the spiritual nature of this experience and how impactful it was for the speaker. He went into lands known and touched the “sanctity of space”. The speaker concludes with the famous line, “Put out my hand and touched the face of God”. This is the perfect summary of what the rest of the poem is trying to depict. Flight, for this speaker, is like leaving everyday life behind and entering into a new realm, one that is closer to Heaven than earth.