Sean Street takes Radio 4 on a ‘High Flight'

1/7 November 2009

One of the most enduring poems on the joys of flying will be the subject of a programme produced for BBC Radio 4 by Sean Street, Bournemouth University’s (BU) resident Professor of Radio. The programme, High Flight produced by Falling Tree, will air on Radio 4 this Sunday, 1 November at 4.30 pm and be repeated on Saturday, 7 November at 11.30 pm. High Flight is the name of a poem, written by Anglo-American pilot John Magee who died in a mid-air collision over Lincolnshire in December 1941, aged just 19. Magee, the son of an American father and British meother, was a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force. He left behind the sonnet which, he claimed, he started “at 30,000 feet and finished soon after (he) landed”. Magee originally enclosed the poem on the back of a letter to his parents. His father, a church rector in Washington, DC, reprinted the poem in church publications before the Library of Congress included it in an exhibition of poems in February, 1942. Magee is now buried at Holy Cross, Scopwick Cemetery in Lincolnshire, England which Professor Street visited in preparation for his broadcast. On Magee’s grave are inscribed the first and last lines from High Flight: "Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth - Put out my hand and touched the Face of God." “Over the last 67 years, High Flight has become the most celebrated poem about the ‘intoxication’ of flying,” said Professor Street. “It is learned by every Canadian pilot when they get their wings. It also found new place in popular US culture during the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan paraphrased the poem during his tribute to the victims of the Challenger space shuttle disaster who ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God’.” During his programme for Radio 4, Professor Street traces the trajectory of the poem and its poet from Rugby School to the United States Library of Congress with contributions from Andrew Motion, veterans of the Royal Canadian Air Force, composer Bob Chilcott and Library of Congress archivist Cheryl Fox. 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 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. 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 untrespassed sanctity of space, Put out my hand and touched the face of God. Pilot Officer Gillespie Magee No 412 squadron, RCAF Killed 11 December 1941