I listen to a lot of ambient and downtempo music mixes while I’m writing, largely to provide relaxing background noise and to spur mental focus while I’m trying to be creative. Occasionally artists or remixers will include vocal clips or quotes intermittently through the pieces.

Recently I came across a space-themed track which had a very interesting set of lyrics, intoned by a very mid-century news voice. I looked up the phrases and came across their source: a poem by an Royal Canadian Air Force pilot back in 1941. John Gillespie Magee Jr wrote “High Flight” several months before he died in a training flight over England at 19 years of age.

His words have struck chords with aviators across the decades, and many of them are displayed on headstones in Arlington National Cemetery, particularly those of pilots and astronauts. While I am obviously neither of those things, I have long been fascinated with flight, flying, and astronomy, and this poem really speaks to me about the joy and thrill of exploration, of pushing the envelope, and becoming one with the forces of nature.

I talked with a coworker about this poem and she likened it to the feeling new mariners of old must have had when they were weeks out at sea, away from everything and everyone they knew. I really like that analogy—I think it provides a very different feeling than talking about being alone in a forest (and thus surrounded by the sounds thereby) or elsewhere on Earth.

Particularly on the heels of a story about flight and a character I portrayed who used time aloft to escape from the cares and concerns of the terrestrial world, I thought coming across this poem was particularly poignant. I hope you too enjoy his words and recognize the thrill and awe he felt at soaring through the skies.

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.
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, 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.

Header image of the International Space Station copyright NASA