The years I’m reflecting on—1940 (the year of my current Pulitzer novel) and 1941 (the year I’m now focused on for Poetry Fridays)—are momentous years for the history of human civilization. For the first time in recorded history, we really did see a world war, a war so all encompassing that virtually everyone on the planet felt some kind of impact…no offense to the Great War (World War I), which was serious and important and truly devastating, but 1940-1941 unleash a violence whose impact and breadth are really unrivaled by anything other than the four years that followed them.
It will (presumably) be some years before the Pulitzers catch up and give me novels that contemplate humanity in this setting, so for now I’ll turn to poetry to capture the emotions of the opening years of World War II, starting with a poem by John Gillespie Magee, Jr. He was the child of an American Episcopal priest and a British woman, born in China, raised in England, schooled (briefly) in the United States. In 1940, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. In 1941, he flew in a Spitfire Squadron over the fields of Great Britain—this is during the embattled year when the United Kingdom stood alone in defense of all that the Axis powers opposed: personal freedom, tolerance, the right of any minority group to exist. He was one of the brave few to whom, Churchill said, never before in the history of the Earth had been owed so much by so many. And over Lincolnshire, at the age of 19, in December 1941 John Magee was killed in a midair collision. He is buried in Lincolnshire, at peace, as Rupert Brooke (another young poet killed by a world war) might have said, “under an English heaven”.
A few months before Magee’s death, in the summer of 1941, he took a flight in a Spitfire that captured his imagination. He wrote a sonnet, and jotted it down on the back of a letter he sent home to his parents in Washington, D.C. It rapidly became one of this war’s few well-known poems (as opposed to World War I, which was captured by reams and reams of verse), and some of its phrases have survived into the discourse even today—I think anyone as old as I am, or older, will instantly recognize phrases we know from another context, in the winter of 1986. This is “High Flight”, by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.:
“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 nor ever 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.”
Magee captures the heart-breaking beauty of the young man at the peak of his powers—astonished at the glories present in the world, confident in his seemingly boundless capacities, exultant in the innocent wonder associated with the miracle of flight. Unlike Yeats’s Irish airman who foresaw his death in a poem of the Great War, Magee here is full of joy and optimism. His hands touch the face of God in humble gladness, in the almost careless freedom of a boy who thinks there is no height too high for him to climb. In another poet, this might easily seem self-indulgent—the overly purple prose of a teenager too giddy to focus, too silly to be serious. But the context is all-important, isn’t it?
I think so, at least. The poem is resonant because it is an island of peace in what must have been a great sea of sorrow and pain. Magee is a boy who has seen other boys die, whose job it is to kill, in fact, to protect the innocent. He turns the air into a sanctuary, into a bright and tranquil avenue to the divine, in part as a reaction to the reality that, in the 20th Century, humanity learned to fill the air with death and war just as skillfully as it had turned land and sea to that end in centuries past. The poem is lovely because it is futile—a paper shield held up against the reality of what would happen to Magee, and to hundreds of young pilots like him, in defense against a foe with whom there could be no compromise. Even at my most pacifist moments, I have to admit the deep admiration I have, and the deep debt I feel I owe, to young men like Magee.
This is in part because two of the young men in the skies that war were my two grandfathers—one a bomber pilot in Europe who got himself and his crew safely through their tour of duty, another a seaplane pilot in the Pacific whose job was to rescue downed sailors and liberate POW camps at the end of the war. I grew up hearing the stories they could bear to tell, and I know that there were stories each man took alone and private to the grave. I caught glimpses of that shadow at times, tears forming at the mention of a friend’s name, a smile suddenly becoming set and tense as an unspoken memory surfaced. Both men knew all that Magee did—the amazing joy of those early hours in the air, flights their own grandfathers could never have dreamed of, and then the cruelties of war, again unimagined and unimaginable by their families back home. It makes me somber as I approach a poem like this, almost reverent. The sonnet, in what it does and does not say, reminds me of the things I must not forget, about my family and my country and the world.
I could say more about it as a poem, but I think I’ll leave my reflections here—it’s clearly the work of a young poet, and an amateur at that, and yet it’s a very resonant piece for me. I alluded earlier to the familiarity of the phrases: in case that was too cryptic, the first time I ever heard the phrase “slipped the surly bonds of Earth and touched the face of God” was when President Reagan told my six-year-old self (and the rest of a grieving nation) about the Challenger disaster in his address to the nation. I had watched the loss of the shuttle in real time that morning—the first memory I have of any event beyond the scope of my home and family—and the words Reagan said have always stuck with me. Poems should do this to us: live inside us all our lives, work on us when we need them to, come to our lips in fragments and phrases unbidden and maybe even unrecognized. Whether this poem does that for you is, of course, for you to say—all I can say is that it does that for me, and I suspect it always will.