‘High flight’ by John Gillespie Magee

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 sun-lit silence. Hovering there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air;
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor even 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.

I wanted to post a poem that was entirely new to me today and I found this piece in an anthology that (very surprisingly) fits into that category. High flight totally floored me with its easy-seeming, dazzling-bright description of the sublime freedom and pure joy of flying above the clouds. The story of its author and journey to publication fascinated me further and heightened its significance so that I just had to share it with you.

This poem was written by an evidently rather exceptional 19-year-old American called John Gillespie Magee who, in 1940 (before the US entered World War 2) joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in order to fight the Nazis. He is reported to have sent this poem to his parents while training as a Spitfire pilot in the UK, saying “I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day… It started at 30,000 feet and was finished soon after I landed”. I wonder how many poems have been written at such an altitude! Only a few months later Magee was tragically killed when returning to base with his squadron after a training exercise. His Spitfire collided with another aircraft, resulting in the deaths of both pilots involved in the accident.

It was Magee’s family that endeavoured to have his poem published, and once they succeeded this unlikely, one-hit American poet became famous overnight. High flight is still one of the best-known poems of World War 2.

I love the effect of carefree, boyish joy that is achieved by Magee’s diction. Take the dancingly beautiful first line: “I have slipped the surly bonds of earth”; the combination of sibilance and the assonance of “surly” and “earth” here makes for such a musical opening. The ensuing images of the “laughter-silvered wings” of his Spitfire, and the “tumbling mirth/ Of sun-split clouds” are gorgeously ecstatic. I also find extremely touching the way in which there is a tone of almost bragging as this young pilot tells us he has “done a hundred things/ You have not dreamed of” (and later on that he has flown “Where never lark or even eagle flew”). If one remembers that he sent this poem only to his parents (and perhaps wrote it principally to them), one can almost hear in these proud claims his need for their approval and admiration.

This poem is clearly about the pure joy of flying, and is a wonderful expression of a pilot’s passion for his job. However, I think there is also (isn’t there always?) room for other interpretations. I personally feel that this piece can be read to describe any activity that allows you to feel a version of this pure joy – this bliss being described where you feel such elation that you might “put out [your] hand, and touch[..] the face of God”. For me, this makes me think of writing poetry (or any artistic endeavour). I think Magee had poetry in mind as well, and he gives this away by referring to his “craft” (I adore that phrase – “flung/ My eager craft through footless halls of air”).

This idea of soaring above the mundane world, adventuring into unchartered territory, and being so close to bliss that he could reach out and touch the divine… makes me think of the joy that can be found through any form of artistic expression (particularly musical forms, perhaps), but could also be read as referring to other forms of human endeavour such as scientific or mathematical discovery or even falling in love.

John Gillespie Magee

John Gillespie Magee

Magee, 19 years old

Magee, 19 years old

‘Autumn’ by Rainer Maria Rilke

The leaves are falling, falling as from far,
As if far gardens in the skies were dying;
They fall, and never seem to be denying.

And in the night the earth, a heavy ball,
Into a starless solitude must fall.
We all are falling.

My own hand no less
Than all things else; behold, it is in all.
Yet there is One who, utter gentleness,

Holds all this falling in
His hands to bless.

Below is the original German text for those of you who can understand it, and for those of you (like me) who can’t, but who would like to read it to catch a glimmer of Rilke’s original music.

Herbst


Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,
als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;
sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde.

Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere
Erde
aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.
Wir allen fallen.

Diese Hand da fällt.
Und sieh dir andre an: es ist in allen.
Und doch ist einer, welcher dieses 

Fallen
undendlich sanft
in seinen Händen hält.

This poem is full of such beautiful, melancholic and autumnal images. I particularly love the line in the first verse, “As if far gardens in the skies were dying”. This image strikes me as so uniquely brilliant, and makes me eager to read more of Rilke’s work.

Autumn, uses the notion of “falling” throughout, mirroring, of course, the falling of the leaves and the dying of the year. The season of Autumn is often attached to a state or tone of melancholy, as it inevitably reminds us of the the seasons of our own lives winding down. This notion is expressed in a line so memorable here that I am sure I will be unable to forget it: “And in the night the earth, a heavy ball,/ Into a starless solitude must fall.” The idea of the earth being a heavy ball promotes the feeling that none of us are immune to the melancholy of the passing of time, and the “starless solitude” is just a perfect coupling to create a vision of the bleakness of the state of mind being described.

In his final lines, Rilke introduces hope to the poem – religious hope: “Yet there is One who… holds all this falling in his hands to bless.”

Rainer_Maria_Rilke,_1900

 

‘Le Pont Mirabeau’ by Guillaume Apollinaire

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
Et nos amours
Faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne
La joie venait toujours après la peine.

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Les mains dans les mains restons face à face
Tandis que sous
Le pont de nos bras passe
Des éternels regards l’onde si lasse

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

L’amour s’en va comme cette eau courante
L’amour s’en va
Comme la vie est lente
Et comme l’Espérance est violente

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Passent les jours et passent les semaines
Ni temps passé
Ni les amours reviennent
Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

 

Here is my translation:

Under the Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine
And our love
It must remind me
That joy always comes after pain.

Cometh the night and soundeth the hour
The days go by yet I remain

Hand in hand let us stay face to face
Whilst
Under the bridge of our arms race
Eternal gazes, the weary waves

Cometh the night and soundeth the hour
The days go by yet I remain

Love goes by like this flowing water
Love goes by
How life is slow
And how Hope is rough

Cometh the night and soundeth the hour
The days go by yet I remain

The days and weeks pass
Neither time past
Nor love returns
Under the Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine

Cometh the night and soundeth the hour
The days go by yet I remain

This poem has been chiming in my head like a song on repeat for the past few weeks. I live near the Pont Mirabeau, and had read this poem a long time ago, but it had never really meant much to me. However, crossing the bridge the other day I noticed that there is a plaque with the first verse and refrain of this poem inscribed on it. I noticed how the music of the rhyme of the refrain reflects the magic, hypnotic banality of the river’s slow movement, and so I dug up the poem as soon as I got home.

I have tried to translate it as faithfully as possible, but found it difficult to recreate the music and rhyme of the French… For me, Le Pont Mirabeau makes me think about the unending torrents of people that flow through Paris every day. I often think about this, especially when I see old footage of horses and carriages, or men in tailcoats and top hats walking along the Rue de Rivoli or admiring the construction of the Eiffel Tower. The city hardly changes at all, but the people – so flimsy and fragile – live out there lives and loves here, die, and are then replaced by other lives and stories that begin and end. It’s like the water under the solid, seemingly unmovable Mirabeau Bridge.

There is certainly a sadness to the poem, and in the idea of love and time flowing past, as unretreivable as the river flowing under the bridge. But I also find something consoling in the resolute solidity of the bridge, which ‘remains” despite the days going by. Though life (and perhaps love) is transitory, there is still art – what we create and leave behind us – which is immortal. To my mind, the bridge in this poem represents the poem, the painting, the symphony, the building, the city – which man creates as a flag to his experience.

The Pont Mirabeau

The Pont Mirabeau

 

The plaque on the Pont Mirabeau

The plaque on the Pont Mirabeau

 

‘After Auschwitz’ by Anne Sexton

Anger,
as black as a hook,
overtakes me.
Each day,
each Nazi
took, at 8:00 A.M., a baby
and sauteed him for breakfast
in his frying pan.

And death looks on with a casual eye
and picks at the dirt under his fingernail.

Man is evil,
I say aloud.
Man is a flower
that should be burnt,
I say aloud.
Man
is a bird full of mud,
I say aloud.

And death looks on with a casual eye
and scratches his anus.

Man with his small pink toes,
with his miraculous fingers
is not a temple
but an outhouse,
I say aloud.

Let man never again raise his teacup.
Let man never again write a book.
Let man never again put on his shoe.
Let man never again raise his eyes,
on a soft July night.
Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.
I say those things aloud.

I beg the Lord not to hear.

I don’t think many readers will fail to be shocked by this poem. Its grotesque images and daring treatment of subject matter that seems untouchable for a poet certainly shocked me when I first read it.

But I think the subject matter is carefully chosen specifically to that end – to shock and hold our attention. The words “Auschwitz” and “Nazi” can never fail to do that. Spell-like, these words are capable of instilling horror even in those who were born decades after the events, because they conjure visions of man’s worst atrocities; a vision of pure evil; the Devil inside us. I think Sexton is using the imagery of the Holocaust to amplify (and in some strange sense that I can’t quite qualify, to validate) her own personal trauma. Plath does the same thing in her poetry (Daddy is the perfect example). Of course, this poem (as the title suggests) is a response to Auschwitz. However, I think it is also a more general reaction to Man’s inhumanity, and perhaps also the inhumanity of men. Sexton was surely influenced by the Vietnam War, which was going on at the time of writing, and by events in her own life, such as her divorce, and her struggle with depression.

The first emotion in the poem – and the first word – is “Anger”. “Anger,/ as black as a hook,/ overtakes me”. We begin with an intensely personal moment, where the speaker feels completely overwhelmed and surpassed by her anger. Then, as though moving the camera lens away from herself, the poet states, almost incongruently, that “Each day,/ each Nazi” sautéed a baby “for breakfast,/ in his frying pan”. This image is painfully, disgustingly, unbearably visual. For me, this first stanza is as if Sexton starts out trying to express her own anger, and then (perhaps to avoid discussing what has made her angry) thrusts this horrifying image in our faces as if to say – ‘look: Man is evil, and this proves it’.

“And death looks on with a casual eye”, writes Sexton. This phrase is repeated twice in the poem, and each time death is performing a banal, repulsive action such as “pick[ing] the dirt under his fingernails” and “scratch[ing] his anus”. I think these images of death are repeated to deliver a sense of the banality of death and senseless inhumanity, but also to convey that evil is not only in action, but in the inaction of bystanders who witness evil and do nothing to stop it. In this case, those bystanders, looking on with a casual eye, are also “death” – also murderers.

Notice that the images of Man in this piece are all of a corrupted creature that once had the potential to be something beautiful. For example, he is described as a “flower/ that should be burnt”, a “bird full of mud” and “not a temple/ but an outhouse”. I can’t help but think of Sexton’s own relationship here, and consider that these lines might just as well be accusing the betrayer in a broken relationship. The repetition of the word “Man” in this piece is hard to ignore. Clearly, Sexton is using it in the universal sense of ‘mankind’, but for me that insistent repetition also delivers a strong anti-male vibe – as though this were the voice of a betrayed, disillusioned, heartbroken woman – and I think again of Sexton’s personal life.

In the final verse we are given some biblical sounding commandments for the new world after Auschwitz. The first is, “Let man never again raise his teacup.” I think this commandment refers to civilities; let us never again pretend to be sophisticated or civilised after what has happened. The second is, “Let man never again write a book.” Philosophy, poetry, science, acting educated… all these things seem ridiculous to the traumatised speaker; Man is not an intellectual being but a brute and a monster. The poet goes on to forbid Man from ever “put[ting] on his shoe” – from dressing himself up as anything other than an animal – and from “rais[ing] his eyes,/ on a soft July night”. Perhaps this final commandment forbids Man from looking for God, marvelling at the stars, or finding beauty in nature. After all – after Auschwitz – it is evident that Man is an abomination of nature, and does not deserve God’s forgiveness.

“I say those things aloud”, writes Sexton. I find this phrase intriguing because she does not say ‘these things are true’. She is simply saying them aloud. She is just daring to voice her anger, air her thoughts. The final line, “I beg the Lord not to hear”, is vital and telling, and sort of saves the whole poem from being utterly depressing. The whole poem has been expressing the notion that Man is a monster that deserves to die, and then at the end she admits that she begs God not hear her prayer. Despite everything, she does not wish to visit the same inhumanity that has sparked this poem, on the perpetrators – on Man. She begs God not to hear. She is desperately hoping that there might be some possibility of salvation.

Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton

‘The Scholars’ by W.B. Yeats

Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.
All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

This poem from The Wild Swans at Coole means a great deal to me because it reminds us that poetry is an Art and a passion before it is anything else. In this piece, Yeats evokes the blinkered academic, furiously analysing – “edit[ing] and annotat[ing]” – the dry pages of tomes full of poetry that was “Rhymed out in love’s despair” by “Young men, tossing in their beds.” The Scholars is a spot-on, well-aimed jab at literary critics, but also a very pertinent comment on the nature of poetry.

I love the contrast between the bald heads – those “Old, learned, respectable bald heads” – and the young poets rhyming out “in love’s despair”. Notice how the scholars don’t seem to have bodies; they’re just heads. The “young men” are living their lives, and experiencing every moment of it intensely. Their writing is what Wordsworth described as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. The way the scholars are described as annotating and editing suggests they manipulate the verse to fit their purpose (which critics often do).

“All shuffle… all cough in ink”, Yeats tells us. The shuffling certainly amplifies this idea of quiet living – blinkered living – and the coughing brings to my mind a person that almost ignores the needs of his body because he is so deeply buried in his books. “All think what other people think”; these scholars seem to be dictated to by tradition, and pressure about what is the ‘right’ literature to venerate.

When we come to the end of the piece, Yeats poses us a question: “Lord, what would they say/ Did their Catullus walk that way?” I like this very neat ending. If Catullus (a Roman poet, known for his love poems) had been as dry, as hermit-like, and as studious as Yeats’ scholars, what on earth would his poetry have been like? Without experience – without a life – without at least some kind of passion – a poet is nothing, because it is in moments of intense emotion that poems are ‘born’, even if they are completed and polished in a calmer state (or “in tranquility” to quote Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads again).

As you can probably tell from this blog, I kind of like literary criticism. I love to read about writers and their techniques; I love to take a poem and really get to grips with it and work out how and why it’s such a marvel because I love poetry. But The Scholars reminds us that the greatest literary theorist cannot necessarily write a poem, and the greatest poets need not by any means be academics. On the contrary; the poet is an artist. Yeats certainly was.

W.B. Yeats

W.B. Yeats

‘A Desolation’ by Allen Ginsberg

Now mind is clear
as a cloudless sky.
Time then to make a
home in wilderness.

What have I done but
wander with my eyes
in the trees? So I
will build: wife,
family, and seek
for neighbors.

Or I
perish of lonesomeness
or want of food or
lightning or the bear
(must tame the hart
and wear the bear) .

And maybe make an image
of my wandering, a little
image—shrine by the
roadside to signify
to traveler that I live
here in the wilderness
awake and at home.

I am intrigued and captivated by this poem, though I admit that (as with many Ginsberg poems) I find it difficult. I think the poet is exploring the idea of a life lived in harmony with nature, as opposed to a conventional life – perhaps city life? – within modern Western society. Allen Ginsberg was an avid student of Buddhism (he even founded his own school based on its principles), and I think there are clear influences of that interest in this piece.

The opening stanza describes a state of mind, “clear/ as a cloudless sky”. In this state of peace and calm, the poet decides it is “Time then to make a/ home in wilderness”. These two lines suggest that when the poet’s mind is uncluttered by the mess and bustle of life within the confines set out by society (i.e. in a state of meditation?), his overriding desire is to live in the “wilderness” – in the purity of nature – abandoning ego, ambition and material greed. The poet’s desire to live in the “wilderness” also reflects the way in which Ginsberg masterfully rebelled against the inherited conventions of poetry, abandoning strict form and permitting himself the colloquial and sometimes even vulgar diction, and of course taboo subjects such as sex, homosexuality, racism etc.

“What have I done but/ wander with my eyes/ in the trees?” asks the speaker in the second verse. I think Ginsberg is saying here that this is all he has been seeking throughout his life — searching the horizon, the wilderness, for a way in (or a way out!) He says that he will “build” a home there, in the wilderness, with “wife”, “family” and “neighbours”. For me, there is a sort of self-conscious acknowledgement here that – however much he longs to separate himself from the trappings of conventional society – he is always applying society’s measures – its mores and norms – to the ‘free’ life he is seeking in the “wilderness”. Even here, he seeks to furnish his new home with the usual “wife”, “family” and “neighbors” that signify success in the Western world’s terms. Likewise, perhaps, even as free as the Beat poets seemed from literary convention, they doubtless still felt the weight and draw of it at times.

As we move into the third stanza, the poet begins to contemplate the possible failure of his dream home. He imagines that he might “perish of lonesomeness”, “want of food”, “lightning” or “the bear”. These fears are very intriguing. He is afraid that his ‘pure’ life in nature might cause him to die from loneliness, hunger (that is man’s greed). The lightning I think might refer to love (the coup de foudre or lightning bolt) and the bear of course signifies the dangers of the untamed natural world. Ginsberg adds at the end of this stanza, in brackets, that he must “tame the hart” and “wear the bear”. This implies that he realises he must tame the wild creatures in order to be safe (or even to eat), and kill in order to defend himself. There must be destruction, murder – a desolation – for man’s survival.

In the final verse, the speaker tells us that he wishes to leave a trace of himself in his wilderness. Man has always told stories, left an imprint of himself, from the time he lived in caves. It’s a natural, human impulse. Ginsberg talks of a little “shrine by the roadside”, so that travellers might know that he lives there in the wilderness, “awake and at home”. He is determined to pursue his ‘pure’ and ‘natural’ life, and he will leave a small trace of it for other pilgrims. This “shrine by the roadside” is surely a symbol for Ginsberg’s poems, which are beacons of this incredible poet’s courage and genius – a signpost for other poets seeking the same freedom.

Ginsberg_2

‘Morning Song’ by Sylvia Plath

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Here I am, writing about Sylvia Plath again. Every time I return to her ‘Ariel’ poems, I am newly astounded; the poems are so unique, challenging and rewarding. ‘Morning Song’ is the first poem in that collection, and describes a mother waking in the night to tend to her crying baby. As a mother of two, Plath is surely writing about her own child, her own experience.

The opening line is killer: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch.” From the outset, it is clear that Time is to be a prominent theme here. Plath likens her child’s birth to the winding of a watch. The implication here is of course that the watch must eventually wind down, stop; her child will ultimately die. There is a strong awareness throughout the poem that this baby is on its own life course – that it occupies Time in a space separate from the mother. Plath recognises this in the second verse as she describes the child as a “New/ statue./ In a drafty museum”. A new statue that will receive its own stains, chips and cracks. Mother, father and midwife become mere “walls”, eclipsed by the new life that has just become the most important thing in the world.

Plath develops this notion of separation in the third, magisterial stanza: “I’m no more your mother/ Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own/ Slow effacement at the wind’s hand”.  What a statement; this is Plath at her enigmatic, economical finest. The poet is poignantly aware that her child is a separate entity, and she sees her own mortality reflected in that life.

I love the description in the fifth verse of the mother stumbling from bed at the baby’s cry, “cow-heavy and floral/ In my Victorian nightgown”. Her description of herself here is decidedly unglamorous, dowdy and functional – the sole purpose of her existence now being to nurture and preserve the child. I do not want to dwell on the idea too much, but I cannot help but notice an apparent parallel between her child and her poems, in the sense of one’s creation becoming an independent entity with its own agenda. Plath describes her approach to motherhood in much the same way as she seems to have approached her vocation as a poet. Sylvia Plath famously used to write in the very early hours of the morning, before dawn, while her children were asleep. Her self-sacrificing dedication to her craft was quite ‘motherly’ of her, and the poems are (aren’t they?) mysteriously out of a poet’s control once they are written, and seem to have their own life force…

The final lines of the poem are just perfect, and neatly conclude the poem with a sense that the child is beginning its own, separate journey of life. It tries its “handful of notes”, the “clear vowels” rising “like balloons”. This is a clear acknowledgement that the child has its own independent voice, will tell its own story and build its own future. Plath, the mother, is helpless to control that voice or that life. It is not within her power to censor it.

If you want to read some of my other analyses of Plath’s poems, please take a look at my posts about ‘Ariel‘, ‘Daddy‘, ‘The Applicant‘ and ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree‘.

Sylvia Plath and her two children, Nicholas and Frieda

Sylvia Plath and her two children, Nicholas and Frieda

Previous Older Entries