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“High Flight”

On February 1, a stunned nation watched helplessly as the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry over Texas. All seven astronauts were killed, and amid the condolences was a familiar phrase about how the shuttle crew had “touched the face of God.”

The words came from a poem called “High Flight” by John G. Magee Jr., who was admitted to Yale’s Class of 1944 but deferred entry to enlist as a fighter pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Magee started to write his paean to the joys of flying on September 3, 1941, when he was cruising at 30,000 feet in his “Spitfire.” The 19-year-old completed the poem after he landed and enclosed it in a letter to his parents. On December 11 that year, the young man was killed in an air collision over England.


“Columbia, Columbia, to glory rise, The queen of the world, and the child of the skies!”

“High Flight,” however, was not the first Yale association with the term Columbia. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary credits the first use of the name as a poetic title for the United States to Yale President Timothy Dwight (1752–1817). While serving as a chaplain in the Revolutionary army in 1778, Dwight wrote the popular patriotic song “Columbia” that begins and ends with these words: “Columbia, Columbia, to glory rise, The queen of the world, and the child of the skies!”

And when the Columbia shuttle made its first fully operational flight in November 1982, one of the four-man crew was Joseph P. Allen '65PhD. Allen, a physicist at the Yale Nuclear Structure Laboratory before becoming an astronaut in 1967, took with him on the flight a copy of a paper he had written at Yale, a letter opener made from a piece of the original oak of Connecticut Hall (ca. 1750), and a bronze Yale Bicentennial Medal. He donated his space memorabilia and commemorative Columbia patches to the University archives in 1983.

When Magee’s poem was invoked after the Columbia tragedy, it had already served to remind the nation of the glories and risks inherent in flying. In 1986, “High Flight” was read eloquently by President Reagan after the Challenger accident, and the words were uttered at memorial services, entered into the Congressional Record, and reproduced on Web sites.

The poem became an instant classic upon its publication early in February 1942 in the New York Times and in this magazine. The writer was the son of Rev. John G. Magee, Class of 1906, and two months after the United States entered World War II and the author had been killed, Rev. Magee offered it as a tribute in his 1906 class notes. In October, the Yale Alumni Magazine published “High Flight” again in an editorial note on Herman Hagedorn’s biography of Magee, Sunward I’ve Climbed.


Magee deferred entrance until the war ended, which many people thought would be in a year or so.

John Gillespie Magee Jr. was born in 1922 in Shanghai where his father was an Episcopalian missionary. From the age of 9 he was educated in England, his mother’s homeland, and at 13 enrolled in Rugby. There, Magee won the same poetry prize that Rupert Brooke had won early in World War I. That summer he visited the extended Magee family in Pittsburgh. Due to the war, Magee could not return to England and finished his last year at the Avon School. On his 18th birthday, June 9, 1940, the family reunited in America. John Jr. pleased his father by gaining admission to Yale with a scholarship, but by September he decided to enlist. Talks in New Haven with President Charles Seymour, his father’s close friend, confirmed John Jr.’s plan to defer entrance until the war ended, which, many people thought, would be in a year or so.

Six decades have passed since Magee achieved his “high flight,” and in the intervening years, fliers have reached all the way to the moon. Yet the author’s expression of the mystical experience of climbing sunward remains timeless.

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 wind-swept 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.  


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