slipped the surly bonds of earth

The recent successful landing of the Space Shuttle Discovery reminded me of the Challenger tragedy. I was young at the time, but I have always been impressed by Ronald Reagan’s speech in honor of those who had died, especially the last paragraph.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw 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.”

I didn’t know much about the source of those two quotes, slipping the surly bonds of earth and touching the face of God, so I did some research. What I found was a rather sad story. A surprisingly young man (19 years old) by the name of John Magee penned the words of a poem called “High Flight” after being inspired by a high-altitude flight (30,000 feet) in a Spitfire V.

At 18 he had crossed the Canadian border to join the Royal Canadian Air Force when the US was still neutral in World War II. Here’s an excerpt explaining the rest of the story.

On 3 September 1941, Magee flew a high altitude (30,000 feet) test flight in a newer model of the Spitfire V. As he orbited and climbed upward, he was struck with the inspiration of a poem – “To touch the face of God.”

Once back on the ground, he wrote a letter to his parents. In it he commented, “I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed.” On the back of the letter, he jotted down his poem, ‘High Flight’.

Just three months later, on 11 December 1941 (and only three days after the US entered the war), Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., was killed. The Spitfire V he was flying, VZ-H, collided with an Oxford Trainer from Cranwell Airfield flown by one Ernest Aubrey. The mid-air happened over the village of Roxholm which lies between RAF Cranwell and RAF Digby, in the county of Lincolnshire at about 400 feet AGL at 11:30. John was descending in the clouds. At the enquiry a farmer testified that he saw the Spitfire pilot struggle to push back the canopy. The pilot, he said, finally stood up to jump from the plane. John, however, was too close to the ground for his parachute to open. He died instantly. He was 19 years old.


 (Post a comment) | Comments RSS feed
  1. it is kind of interesting how the words of a pilot who perished in one disaster were so perfectly fit for a later tragedy. I too have been impressed by Reagan’s speech.

    Comment by whaleman on August 23, 2005 @ 6:44 pm
  2. I first heard this beautiful poem recited at a time way back when the television stations signed off for the night. I don’t remember the station but programming was closed with the image of a glider drifting through the sky accompanied with a male voice reciting the poem. It has always brought tears to my eyes no matter when or where I hear it.

    Comment by Patricia on October 31, 2005 @ 9:25 am
  3. I first heard this set to music, sung by John Denver, who sadly also would die later in a plane crash.

    Comment by Janine on February 25, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

Comments are closed