‘Slip the Surly Bonds of Earth’

February 05, 1991 1 min read

President Reagan concluded his televised message on the death of the seven space-shuttle crew members last Tuesday with a poetic fragment that sent many viewers searching through literary references.

“We will never forget them,” the President said, “nor the last time we saw 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.’ ”

Were the last dozen lines from Shakespeare, many wondered? Or James Michener’s novel Space? Or perhaps the popular motion picture “Out of Africa,” in which the Danish writer Isak Dinesen conveys the joy of turn-of-the-century flight?

Actually, the President had juxtaposed lines from a World War II-era sonnet, written by a 19-year-old American airman who had volunteered for the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Titled “High, Flight,” the sonnet reads:

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 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.

The poet, John Gillespie Magee Jr., was killed in action near Great Britain on Dec. 11, 1941.

A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 1986 edition of Education Week