This poem is very different from the last one we analysed (Valentine, by Carol Ann Duffy – see Post 27). Nevertheless, responding to the words you read, and giving evidence to back up your responses, are the two elements needed – once again – to write a critical account of the piece.
You don’t need to know this, but for interest’s sake: the writer of the poem, John Magee, was an Anglo-American aviator and poet. Magee served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, which he joined before the United States entered the second world war; he died in a mid-air collision over Lincolnshire in 1941.
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 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.
1 You can see on the page or screen that this poem is fairly regular in its line lengths (unlike the Carol Ann Duffy poem). This shows us that the poet has put some effort into achieving that effect, as everyday speech and writing do not come out like that naturally. As I’ve said before, poetry is a form of writing where the writer has made an extra effort in his or her use of words, and so it is a form which repays an extra effort on the part of the reader.
2 In fact, if you count the number of syllables (units of sound within the words) in each line, you will find that they are all the same – ten syllables per line.
3 If you read the poem aloud, once you’ve got the sense of it, where do you put the strong stresses? Don’t get “hung up” on this, because different readers will read the poem differently, but on the whole I’d say that the stresses are in pairs, and that the most common stress pattern in those pairs is dit-DAH (weak-STRONG). Lines which are mostly ten syllables long, and where the stress pattern is most often weak-STRONG, are known as lines of iambic pentameter – and this is a very popular form in English because it is thought to resemble most closely the speech patterns of native speakers. Most of the text in Shakespeare’s plays, for example, is iambic pentameter.
4 Anyway – on to a more instinctive response! The title gives us a clue to what the poem is about – flying high. It could be about a bird – in which case the voice of the poem is the bird; we can tell this from the first line; “I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth”. The first verse (as it’s set out here – though in some editions the poem is only one, longer, verse) is a joyous description of flying and playing in the air. It is only in the final line of the first verse (or section) that we find out that the voice of the poem – the narrator – is not a bird after all, but a pilot: “I’ve . . . flung/ My eager craft through footless halls of air . . .”.
5 In the second verse, or second section, the narrator states that flying in his (or her – but as we know he was a pilot, it is likely that Magee is writing about his own experiences here) aircraft enables him to reach places that even birds cannot: “Where never lark, or even eagle flew – “.
6 What are the words and expressions which enable us to sense some of the joy and freedom the narrator feels whilst flying? “I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth”: he has escaped from the ties holding him to the ground. Notice the alliteration – repetition of a sound or sounds within a short distance – slipped – surly – to give a sense of something material (and unpleasant: surly means bad-tempered) falling away.
“And danced the skies” – a happy image (word picture), and one that tempts us to wonder at how anyone – or anything – could dance in the sky.
“on laughter-silvered wings” – laughter and silver are both attractive things; one speaks of happiness and joy, the other of beauty and richness. Notice, too, how the poet is appealing to both our sense of sound – with laughter – and our sense of sight – with silvered.
“Sunward” – most of us here on earth turn our faces to the sun, whether we be humans, animals or plants, as a matter of instinct.
“joined the tumbling mirth/ Of sun-split clouds” – mirth means happiness and laughter; sun-split (notice the alliteration again, which focuses our eyes and ears on the expression) clouds are something for us to conjure up in our imagination. It is (I think) a wonderful picture.
“and done a hundred things/ You have not dreamed of” – well, that’s how wonderful it is for him – better than any dreams we might have had.
“wheeled and soared and swung” – these are the actions he’s taken, and they have a marvellous sense of freedom about them.
“High in the sunlit silence” – having told us about things we can see, or imagine we see, he now appeals to our sense of hearing: there is no sound at all. (And yes, there’s more alliteration, again on the letter s. Either he really likes this sound, or – and having gone up in gliders for several years, I favour this interpretation – there is something about the s-sound that replicates or suggests the experience of flying freely.)
“Hov’ring there” – balanced between earth and sky, almost magically (because air-borne things usually fly or fall or climb). Why has he cut out the e of hovering, replacing it with an apostrophe? That’s because he wants to keep to ten syllables per line, and without the e we pronounce it as “hov – ring” – two syllables – rather than “hov – er – ing”, three syllables.
“I’ve chased the shouting wind along” – who wouldn’t want to be able to chase the wind? And here’s some sound, too – “shouting”.
“long, delirious, burning blue” – there’s a challenging image for you to conjure up! How can blue burn? How can blue be long? I expect you can explain that, but it’s not how we’d usually describe the sky, so I think it’s an excellent way of trying to get us to feel the wonder that the pilot feels. (Delirious, by the way, can mean wildly happy, which is how – I think – he wants us to feel here, even though – again – he’s actually describing the blue.)
“I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace” – what an achievement! And he makes it seem effortless – “with easy grace”.
7 At the end of the poem, we come to something going beyond even the physical, mental and emotional joys of flying. In the final three lines, the poet suggests that there is something spiritual about the experience of flying your own aircraft so high in the sky.
“with silent, lifting mind” – as if perhaps in a church, where people reflect in quietness and raise their thoughts to God.
“I’ve trod/ The high untrespassed sanctity of space” – sanctity means holiness. And he is not a trespasser here – it’s not wrong for him to be here.
“Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.” Here he is experiencing something beyond the normal human experience. There is something sublime about his experience while flying.
8 It seems wrong to say much, if anything, after that superb and mysterious ending – but you might want on another occasion to look at the rhyme-scheme [ABAB CDCD EFE GFG]. The poem is a sonnet . . . but that’s material for another day and another blog!