‘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

‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

Sticking with the Remembrance Day theme, here is (probably!) the best war poem ever written.

Dulce et Decorum Est is a Latin phrase taken form an ode by Horace, and it means “It is sweet and honourable to die for your country.” Of course, in Owen’s poem the title is used ironically, and goes against all that Charge of the Light-Brigade kind of rhetoric that was so prevalent before the First World War.

This poem absolutely floored me the first time I read it as a teenager. I had never really thought about war in this way — on a personal, human level. I almost don’t know what to say about it; the imagery is so graphic and shocking – and so strangely beautiful in its immense power – that it leaves me rather speechless.

As Owen said himself, “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.”

I admire Owen so much, both for his courage as a man and soldier, and for his poetic genius. The more I’ve read about him over the years, the more I feel very connected to him. He spent time just before the war teaching English in France, near Bordeaux, and he was also determined from a young age to be a poet. He was very taken with Keats, and Romantic poetry, and it took much persuasion from his literary hero and mentor Siegfried Sassoon to get him to write about the war (the two met at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland where Owen was being treated for shell-shock.)

Wilfred Owen wrote this poem while still at Craiglockhart. In the original manuscript, the poem was dedicated to “Jessie Pope, etc”. Jessie Pope wrote a lot of poetry full of propaganda to encourage men to enlist. Her poems are pretty boring, tame and infuriating creatures, with such nauseating lines as, “Who would much rather come back with a crutch/ Than lie low and be out of the fun?” I think Dulce Et Decorum Est very firmly slams a door on that kind of nonsense.

There is something incredibly touching to me about this young man — so earnest and determined to be a poet like Keats — being so utterly transformed by his experience of trench warfare, that through the trauma he finds his voice. And what a voice! He has really become the poet of the Great War, and I think it’s so tragic that he never knew the extent to which his poetry would be read and loved after his death in 1918.

This poem is as relevant today as it was in 1918. War has not changed, in its essence, and the gas attack described in this poem is certainly not a bygone phenomenon.

Owen wrote many very moving (and surprisingly detailed) letters to his mother from the trenches of northern France. I will end this post with an extract from one, written from a cold, dark cellar, just days before Wilfred Owen was killed:

Dearest Mother,

So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 inches away. And so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges, and jolts. On my left, the company commander snores on a bench. It is a great life. I am more oblivious than the less, dear mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside and the hollow crashing of the shells. I hope you are as warm as I am, soothed in your room as I am here. I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here. There is no danger down here – or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

Original Draft with Jessie Pope dedication

Original Draft with Jessie Pope dedication

‘The Dug-Out’ by Siegfried Sassoon

Why do you lie with your legs ungainly huddled,
And one arm bent across your sullen, cold,
Exhausted face? It hurts my heart to watch you,
Deep-shadowed from the candle’s guttering gold;
And you wonder why I shake you by the shoulder;
Drowsy, you mumble and sigh and turn your head…
You are too young to fall asleep for ever;
And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.

We are coming close to Remembrance Day and I have been thinking about some war poets. Sassoon is always among the first who comes to mind, and he is rightly one of best-loved poets of the First World War.

This particular poem stands out for me among Sassoon’s verse because it is not full of obvious rage and it doesn’t have the ironic tone of many of Sassoon’s brilliant pieces. The Dug-Out presents us with a simple image, and uses plain, clear language to describe the poet’s internal suffering after his has witnessed so much slaughter, so many young men dying before his eyes in grotesque, futile circumstances.

In the poem, the speaker watches a fellow soldier sleeping in the dug-out, in the trenches. His legs are “ungainly huddled” and his face is “exhausted” and “deep-shadowed”. As ever, Sassoon does not shy away from showing us the reality of his war experience, and the toll it took on the men. The image of the candle’s “guttering gold” is quite fascinating; it seems evocative of the unimaginably precarious existence these men lived in the trenches. The poet shakes his “drowsy” comrade by the shoulder, but he just mumbles and “turn[s] [his] head”. He does not want to wake.

The final two lines of the poem are just heart-breaking: “You are too young to fall asleep forever;/ And when you sleep you remind me of the dead”. Like all the soldiers to fight in the Great War (and, of course, every war before and since) they are too young to die. Sassoon is begging this soldier not to die, but also not to sleep; his experience of warfare has so affected him that now the image of a man sleeping reminds him of death and fills him with dread.

I am not sure whether the soldier addressed in this poem is actually dead or not, and I think Sassoon intends it to be ambiguous. The poem seems dreamlike to me, the way the speaker shakes the man to wake him, but the man, mumbling and sighing, “turn[s] [his] head”. The piece certainly has a haunted feel to it in my view. It feels like a nightmare where the speaker is trying to stop a friend from sleeping because he’s afraid he will die, but he is powerless to prevent it.

Listen to a recording of Sassoon reading the poem himself, here.

SiegFried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon