From Volume 1, Number 2, April 1992 issue of The “Quote… Unquote” Newsletter
On a bleak winter’s day we drove up to a service station in the tiny Lincolnshire village of Scopwick. If there had ever been any poetry about the place it was probably a distant echo of some line of Tennyson’s about the utterly flat wolds, but the pump attendant sized us up instantly. `It’s Magee you’ve come to see?’ he said, and directed us to a small burial ground (not the church graveyard) a few hundred yards away.
There, amid the score or so military graves from the Second World War – Allied and German – was the gravestone we had indeed come to find. We wanted to see whether it bore Magee’s most quoted lines.
“Oh I Have Slipped – The Surly Bonds of Earth…Put Out My Hand – And Touched the Face of God.”
How did these lines become so famous? Because they are a classic case of a speechwriter having the appropriate quotation to hand at the right moment. On 28 January 1986, in his TV broadcast to the nation on the day of the space shuttle Challenger disaster, President Reagan concluded: `We will never forget them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.’
This immediately sent people the world over on fruitless journeys to their quotation books. Reagan was quoting `High Flight,’ a sonnet written by John Gillespie Magee, a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Second World War. He came to Britain, flew in a Spitfire squadron, and was killed at the age of nineteen on 11 December 1941 during a training flight from the airfield near Scopwick.
Magee had been born in Shanghai of an American father and an English mother who were missionaries. He was educated at Rugby and at school in Connecticut. The sonnet was written on the back of a letter to his parents which stated, `I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed.’ The parents were living in Washington, DC, at the time of his death and, according to the Library of Congress book Respectfully Quoted, the poem came to the attention of the Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, who acclaimed Magee as the first poet of the war.
Copies of `High Flight’ – sometimes referred to as `the pilot’s creed’ – were widely distributed and plaques bearing it were sent to all R.C.A.F. air fields and training stations. The poem was published in 1943 in a volume called More Poems from the Forces (which was `dedicated to the USSR’). This is a transcription of the original manuscript in the Library of Congress:
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 falls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor eer 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.
How did the poem come to be quoted by President Reagan in 1986? As it happens, he knew of the poem: `I hadn’t heard it in years, but of course I knew it from years back, the war. And I think it was written on a sort of tablet or plaque outside Patti’s school that I took her to when she was a young girl.’ It transpires that Reagan had also been present the night fellow actor Tyrone Power returned from fighting in the Second World War – a party at which Power recited `High Flight’ from memory. (When Power died, the poem was read over his grave by Laurence Olivier.)
It was also used for years as the close-down reading of a local Washington TV station. It was generally well-known in the United States (and much more so than in Britain). One person who learned it at school was Peggy Noonan who wrote the speech for Reagan, as she describes in her book What I Saw at the Revolution (1990). This is not the occasion to discuss the rights and wrongs of speechwriters `going public’ and revealing the extent to which they pull strings.
Suffice to say, it was a brilliant stroke on Noonan’s part to select such an apposite quotation and one it was not too far-fetched to put in Reagan’s mouth.
Two footnotes: in his lyrics for the English version of the musical Les Miserables (1985). Herbert Kretzmer blended Magee’s words with something from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (`to know and love another human being is the root of all wisdom’) to produce the line: `To love another person is to see the face of God.’
Magee’s original words are curiously reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s lines prefixed to his Poems (Paris edition, 1903):
Surely there was a time I might have trod
The sunlit heights, and from life’s dissonance
Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God.
Address to the nation on the Challenger disaster
January 28, 1986
A few hours after the disaster, this speech was delivered to the American people via nationwide radio and television.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.
Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle; but they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together.
For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.
We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.
And I want to say something to the school children of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.
I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute. We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.
I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: “Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.”
There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”