‘First Flight is essentially about how the world seems to be getting smaller. It does this by following a narrator’s first flight as they reminisce and commentate on their situation and the wider world. This is contrasted masterfully with the second narrator who is totally aloof.
Form and Tone
The poem is in free verse. It is a mixture of different length stanzas ranging from single lines to quatrains. Whilst Fanthorpe is famed for a lot of her poems having two distinct voices, sometimes due to them being co-written, this is the case here and the two voices contrast the feelings of an experienced flyer and somebody who is new to flying. The poem has no rhyming pattern. In terms of tone, it appears reflective and acts as a commentary on society.
Analysis of First Flight
Plane moves. I don’t like the feel of it.
In a car I’d suspect low tyre pressure.
‘First Flight’ opens up with a really nice comparison. The narrator explains their dislike for the ways that planes move, presumably whilst in taxi, by likening it to the feeling you get when your car has low tyre pressure. This really is quite an astute observation and highlights the type of narrative voice this poem has. The narrator is witty and thoughtful.
Once again we see a lovely description, this time of the planes take off. This is from the viewpoint of someone who has not flown before. The sense of trepidation is evident. The use of the word slithers makes us think of serpents and generally evokes a negative emotion. The word ‘angles’ is harsh sounding with its “g” sound this makes it jarring and mirrors the feelings of this narrator. The run-on line is interrupted by the second narrator which creates tension as we have to wait to see what it is that the experienced people are doing.
This is rather a short hop for me
There is an instant comparison between the two voices in this first line. The first narrator was cautious and mildly dramatic whereas as this voice is calm, almost nonchalant about the experience of flying. The poem is called ‘First Flight‘ but it is clear from the start that it is not the second narrator’s first flight.
The mundane activities of the experienced passengers all seem to be business-related. It would appear then that the first narrator associates frequent flights with business people. Perhaps one of the “experienced” people they talk about is the second narrator? They seem to fit the bill rather well. Once again this line is interrupted by the second narrator, creating a long pause before we find what the first narrator is craning for. Craning in this instance probably means raising their neck to see through a window.
I’m doing it just to say I’ve done it
Once again the second narrator is almost monotone. Their indifference is evident as they claim to be doing this journey pretty much for the sake of it. This creates a really interesting dynamic as one narrator wants to highlight the importance of the flight and make it feel epic whereas the second narrator seems to be completely nonplussed.
Familiar England, motorways, reservoir,
Building sites. Nimble tiny-disc, a sun
The first narrator describes what they are desperate to see. The landmarks that they think characterize England. They are obviously pretty fond of England. It is referred to as familiar, this denotes safety and comfort, and seeing their home country is probably offering a slight counterbalance to the fear they were feeling from flying for the first time.
Tell us when we get to water
This narrator is clearly not as interested in looking out of the window,. They have seen it all before and are only interested in knowing when they hit the water. They don’t want to look out the window to see every landmark amble past. They just want to know they are almost at their destination.
The narrator describes leaving land and creates a sense of awe. Their description of the clouds being a “meringue Kingdom” is inspired and such a beautiful piece of imagery. It is clear that this first narrator is feeling a bit more comfortable with flying as they are now seemingly able to enjoy their experience.
The next lot of water’ll be the Med
Clearly, the second narrator is only focused on their destination. The Mediterranean is somewhere you would typically associate with a relaxing time. Perhaps it is their vacation? Whatever the case they clearly just want to hurry up and get there.
Once again the first narrator manages to create a sense of awe and wonder, with the mention of cumulous, which is another word for clouds. And describing the sun as a tangerine stain. This is a very powerful language and potentially creates a spectacular picture in the mind of the reader.
You don’t need an overcoat, but
It’s the sort of place where you need
A pullover. Know what I mean?
The second narrator really does come across as quite “toffee-nosed” here. They are bragging like having a holiday in the Mediterranean is not a big deal at all. This stanza makes it sound like they are a veteran of that particular holiday destination. Like they have seen it all before. However, in an earlier stanza, they said they were only doing it to “say they have” so that can’t be the case.
We have come too high for history.
Confounds the forecasters, dismisses clocks.
This experience has clearly got the narrator feeling profound. They make comments about society and how it seemingly no longer concerns itself with the past there is a clever play on words with the phrase “We have come too high” he is talking about the plane and society. The suggestion here is that the world has become too forward-thinking.
My last trip was Beijing. Know where that is?
You call it Beijing, like me. Go on, say it.
This stanza of ‘First Flight’ is full of condescension. The second narrator seems desperate to show-off their worldliness. They are almost mocking the reader by suggesting that they wouldn’t know what Beijing is. Of course, Beijing is more commonly known by that name now, so this line somewhat dates the poem.
Mackerel wigs dispense the justice of air.
At this height nothing lives. Too cold. Too near the sun.
It would seem that the narrator is complaining about the smell of passenger food in the penultimate line. their last line is very reflective. There is a lovely observation about the paradox of being closer to the sun, yet colder. This is obviously correct but also a metaphor. Suggesting that the higher mankind reaches in terms of technological advancement the more cold society seems to get.
About Ursula Askham Fanthorpe
U.A. Fanthorpe was an English poet. Notably, she received a CBE in 2001 for services to poetry and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. She taught English in Cheltenham for sixteen years having achieved a first in her degree. She is a relatively prolific writer having almost 20 collections attributed to her.