‘High Flight’ was one of the poems read during the UCL IOE Library’s ‘Reading Aloud’ event in celebration of World Book Day on 23rd April 2015. This poem, by John Gillespie Magee Jr. (1922-1941), is an evocation of the joy of flight. The poet was influenced by his experiences as a Spitfire pilot during the Second World War. He died in a mid-air collision at the age of nineteen.
Magee, the eldest of four brothers, was born in Shanghai, China where his parents worked as Anglican Missionaries. In 1931 he moved to England with his mother to continue his education. It was at Rugby School, which he attended from 1935-1939, that he developed his skill at poetry. It is perhaps apt that he won the School Poetry Prize in 1938 with a sonnet about the poet Rupert Brooke (1887-1915). Brooke had also attended Rugby and won the School Poetry Prize 34 years before Magee.
In 1939 he visited the United States where his father was now working. After the outbreak of the Second World War prevented him from returning to England he finished his education at the Avon Old Farms School in Connecticut. Despite winning a scholarship to Yale University, Magee enrolled in the Royal Canadian Air Force in October 1940.
After training in Canada he was sent to the UK where he was assigned to No 412 (Fighter) Squadron RCAF. Magee became a qualified Spitfire pilot. After his death Magee was buried in Scopwick, Lincolnshire.
Magee wrote ‘High Flight ’on the back of a letter he sent to his parents. His father was the curate of Saint John’s Episcopalian Church in Washington D.C. and reprinted the poem in church publications. The poem became more widely known through the efforts of Archibald McLeish then the Librarian of Congress. McLeish included ‘High Flight’ in an exhibition of poems called ‘Faith and Freedom’ at the Library of Congress in February 1942.
High Flight is popular with many aviators and astronauts. It is the official poem of the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Air Force.
In the Library’s Curriculum Resources Collection is the book High Flight written by Linda Granfield (1950- ) and illustrated by Michael Martchenko (1942- ). It is perhaps fitting that this lovely book, about the life of John Gillespie Magee Jr. and how he came to write ‘High Flight’, is the work of two people who also moved to Canada from elsewhere. Granfield from the USA and Martchenko from France.