There’s a certain young pilot in my life who once mentioned to me that the poem “High Flight,” is one that perhaps most closely describes his love for aviation. He’s told me that, for him, flying is a spiritual experience – one that fulfills an innermost need that many people experience only through their religious beliefs.
Now I like flying, but I’ve always been a tad too nervous of its risks to truly appreciate the intensity of his love of flight. I didn’t understand the passion and dedication that drove this young man in his steadfast pursuit of his pilot’s license.
But that changed a few days ago — and my comprehension came in the most unlikely of circumstances.
I had decided to dust off my idle press for a limited edition broadside of “High Flight.” Many know this modern sonnet by John Gillespie Magee Jr., a young American pilot serving with a Canadian fighter squadron in 1941. It’s an oft-quoted poem beloved by aviators the world over. No other English poem so eloquently describes the joy and wonder of human flight. It seemed to me the perfect Christmas gift for a young man whose future is as wide and open as the skies he loves.
By way of preparation, I read the poem several times, struck anew at the simple beauty of those lines. The “laughter-silvered wings” and “sunlit silence” evoke such clear images, one can’t help but wonder about the mysterious joy in the aviator’s world.
As with earlier broadsides, I opted once again for a certain Canadian perspective for this piece. In part, I did so to recognize Magee’s decision to join the RCAF early in the Second World War. He was, perhaps, a naive youngster seeking adventure, but I respect his courage and conviction. I also wanted an excuse to use the “Fellowship” type I admire so much. Designed and cast by Canadian printer and type designer, the late Jim Rimmer (Pie Tree Press, BC), the type always seduces me with its elegant allusion to the uncial – and its harmonious readability. And then there’s the lovely deckle-edged Canal Paper made by Papeterie St-Armand in Montreal that deserves to be showcased as well. Pleased with my plan to contribute once more to Canadian printing ephemera, I embarked upon my project.
Mindful of the looming Yule, I set the poem (perhaps too hastily) and set a colophon – which didn’t look right. I set another colophon in the shape of a Spitfire. Proofed. And while its shape was convincing, it seemed a bit too whimsical in form for the tone and language of the poem. Three times the charm: I set a third, simple colophon that better complements the sonnet’s solemn eloquence.
December 25th was crushing upon me as I printed a single-colour, limited edition of 25 copies on dampened paper. And I confess, this is not my finest work. I struggle once more to achieve even inking across the form – and still there are mystery splotches. This, after changing the tympan paper, double-checking roller height, fussing with underlays, replacing worn sorts. I had even lightly dampened the beautiful Canal Paper to ensure a rich and even impression.
I usually know better than to attempt projects in a rush. (I can hear the harummmphs of seasoned letterpress printers even as I write this.) But I was driven – and when the creative impulse takes me, I’ve learned not to resist. Somehow, I managed to get a few good impressions. “And really,” I thought, “there is only one copy that really matters.” (These are the sentiments that drive dedicated craftsmen and -women screaming from the room.)
I know this is a lot to confess, especially in so public a forum and to a readership of learned and experienced letterpress aficionados. But I write this to share the comeuppance that befell me as I dissed the type the following day. An epiphany, actually. And a lesson learned that will resonate with me for a long time.
It was precisely the moment I held the words “laughter-silvered” in my hand. I paused over the type case, fingers poised to drop each sort into its box. It was a moment when Literature (my world) and Aviation (my certain-pilot’s world) coalesced in my brain to create understanding.
I got it.
I understood the mystery, the wonder, the allure that drove him. I understood his drive; the hours of study – physics, meteorology, aviation laws and standards; the practice circuits at the airport; the antsiness that possesses him when he doesn’t fly for a few days; the serenity he feels when flying. I understand now.
I realize that this exercise was not about printing a flawless broadside. Ultimately, it became a moment, an intersection of passions and motivations, that brought me to understanding. It’s strange and wonderful how the three-dimensional nature of the type – the word – in my hand contributed to that understanding: concept > word > form > shared understanding. Here in quiet, intimate place of my print shop, I learned to understand the love of flight. Is this perhaps the very heart of print communication?
And so I offer this modest post to share the moment of my epiphany. To celebrate anew how printing has informed and shaped my appreciation of the world around me, the people in it – and especially those people I cherish most.
Seems a good way to start a new year.
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.
– John Gillespie Magee, Jr. 1941