click photo to enlargeAsk people to name a poem of the First World War and they are very likely to come up with something by Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas or "In Flanders Field" by John McCrae. It's a task that many people would have little difficulty in accomplishing, particularly those of a certain age who studied what were called, "The War Poets", at school. However, if the focus switched to the poets and poems of the Second World War then most people without a particular interest in poetry might struggle. I'd immediately think of my favourite, Henry Reed's "Lessons of the War: I. Naming of Parts", and perhaps its sequel, "Lessons of the War: II. Judging Distances, fine poems that speak obliquely about the experience of war. I'd also offer up "High Flight" by John Gillespie Magee, a work about the awe of piloting a single-seat fighter aircraft high above the earth, that has become a favourite of aviators across the world, and possibly the best known poem to come out of the experience of that conflict.
On a recent few days spent in central Lincolnshire we stopped at Scopwick Cemetery and looked at the war graves there. Many commemorate British and Canadian airmen who died in training at RAF Digby or were otherwise killed in the line of duty. There are also memorials to German airmen shot down in the vicinity. We moved on to our destination after taking a couple of photographs. However, the following day we read that J.G. Magee, the author "High Flight" was among the dead at Scopwick, so we called in again on our journey home. We both knew his poem and recognised the first and last lines that are carved at the base of his memorial. This discovery on our part prompted me to find out more about Magee.
He was born to a U.S. father and British mother, both missionaries, in China. His education began at an American school in Nanking, but from 1931 to 1939, when the family moved to England, he was educated in English schools including Rugby School. In 1938 he won that institution's poetry prize. He was an admirer of another Rugby pupil, Rupert Brooke, the poet of the First World War, who had also won the school's poetry prize in 1904. In 1939 Magee went to the United States and the following year he earned a scholarship to Yale University, but instead chose to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. In 1941 he transferred to Wales to train on the Spitfire aircraft. It was here that he wrote "High Flight". Shortly afterwards he went to RAF Digby and No. 412 (Fighter) Squadron, RCAF. On 11th December 1941, Magee's aircraft and a training aircraft collided in cloud at 1400 feet, resulting in his tragic death at the age of 19.
photograph and text (c) T. Boughen
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