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.
(High Flight, 12-14)
Born on June 9, 1922, in Shanghai, the son of American missionaries (John Gillespie Magee and Faith Emmeline Backhouse), John Gillespie Magee Jr. received his education at the American School, Nanking (1929-31), St. Clare's near Walmer, Kent (1931-35), Rugby School (1935-39), and Avon Old Farms School, near Hartford, Connecticut (1939-40). Young Magee won the Rugby Poetry Prize in 1939 for his "Brave New World," and after returning to America privately published a collection of his poems. Although he had been accepted at Yale University in July 1940, Magee joined the Royal Canadian Air Force that year. He received training in flying in Ontario at Toronto, Trenton, St. Catherine's, and Uplands. He passed his Wings Test in June 1941 and was sent overseas to Llandow in South Wales, Royal Air Force Digby (Lincolnshire), and Wellingore, during which period he had the rank of Pilot Officer. Magee flew the Spitfire as part of No. 412 Fighter Squadron. On September 3, while test-flying a Spitfore V, Magee began writing the sonnet we know now as "High Flight" at 30,000 feet. He finished it upon landing and and sent a copy to his parents. His father, Assistant Rector of St. John's Episcopal Church. Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C., printed it in the church magazine. At 19 years old, on December 11, 1941, John died when his Spitfire V crashed after a mid-air collision in the clouds with a trainer plane from RAF Cranwell. He was one of the first US war casualities (America has only entered the conflict on December 7, when Pearl Harbour was attacked). American and British newspapers reprinted "High Flight" widely following his death after Archibald MacLeish, Librarian of Congress, displayed in an exhibition of poetry, "Faith and Freedom," which took place in Washington in February 1942. By the time that President Ronald Reagan quoted from this sonnet in a tribute to the American astronauts killed in the Challenger 7 space shuttle disaster in January 1986, "High Flight" had become hugely popular among fliers universally. Some of Magee's papers survive in the Library of Congress.
Given name: John Gillespie
Family name: Magee Jr.
Birth date: 9 June 1922
Death date: 11 December 1941
Literary period: modern
Buried at: Scopwick Cemetery, Lincolnshire
First RPO edition: 2002