Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way.
Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now is one of my favourite songs – so sad, so honest and one which expresses things we recognise in ourselves, but have never been able to find the right words. Listening to it again prompted me to write this essay. Compared to the amount of poetry and prose produced about landscapes and seascapes, the sky has been rather neglected. Sunsets and dawns have been paid their due, but move above the horizon and the vast, infinitely variable dome under which we pass our lives does not figure large in our literature. What has been written is mostly about the sky as seen from ground level. Human beings discovered how to become airborne in 1903 and the first scheduled passenger airline started in the USA more than a century ago, yet our artistic response to this newly-found celestial environment, this longed-for avian ability has been surprisingly limited.
Airmen do rank among the war poets, but their work has been largely overlooked. A great deal of it, of course, is about pain, loss, fear, anger and guilt, rather than the freedom of the skies. A memorable exception to this is the poem ‘High Flight’ by John Gillespie Magee.
John Gillespie Magee Jr. Was born in Shanghai, China, to missionary parents. His father was American and his mother British. He moved to England in the early 1930s to attend St.Clare’s and then Rugby School, where he won the Poetry Prize in 1938. Magee left England for the United States in 1939 to study at Yale University, though he never officially enrolled. Instead, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and was sent to England for training. Magee never saw combat. He died in a mid-air collision with another pilot while training. He was 19 years old. His poem, ‘High Flight’ was inspired by a high altitude test flight. He sent a copy of the poem go his parents, who published it after his death.
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 untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Like many another person, my own experience of ‘slipping the surly bonds of earth’ has been on commercial flights. Unless it’s a night flight, I always ask for a window seat. There’s that moment when you break free of low-lying cloud into clear skies above and, like a caterpillar emerging from its cocoon, transform into a butterfly. Here, in this new and glorious wonderland, flamingos spread their wings and the Heavens bloom.
Here, a mile high or more, massive volumes of vapour perform their slow majestic dance. Stately galleons sail past towering palaces. Here, up here in these cloud-realms, are floating dreams, symphonies in pink and white, and poetry in every undulation of diaphanous gossamer veils. High-altitude light at play in crystal fields, eruptions of molten lava, storm-tossed cirrus seas, cumulonimbus mountains of the moon and herds quietly grazing – I’ve looked at clouds that way.
Here, way up here in the wide blueyonder, in a world of stretched horizons where no two clouds have ever been the same in all eternity, my whole being gives praise, rejoices and takes wing.