By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   November 22, 2018

If anybody asked you (for some diabolical reason) to use the word “unpremeditated” in a poem, you might think it a considerable, almost an unfair, challenge. The word isn’t very poetic-sounding, is it? But prepare to be flabbergasted: That word happens to appear in the first stanza of one of the most famous poems in the English language, written by one of the greatest poets.

The poet was Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the poem is “To a Skylark” (1820). It actually has 21 stanzas, but here’s that first one:

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

(You may know “Blithe Spirit” as the cunning, punning, title of a play by Noel Coward, which is a sort of spoof of spiritualism.)

Shelley and John Keats were friends, and had much in common. But it’s remarkable that they are both particularly remembered for a poem each wrote about a bird. In Keats’s case, it is, of course, his “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819).

But you can hardly say that these are poems about birds. In each case, they are much more about the poet himself, and his view of life and the world. To the extent that they do celebrate a bird, it is, in both poems, the creature’s song which captivates the poet. (To Keats, the nightingale “from some melodious plot… singest of summer in full-throated ease.”)

The only other bird I can think of whose song is equally immortalized in verse was a certain nameless Owl who, according to Edward Lear, successfully wooed a similarly anonymous pussy-cat, by singing to her as they eloped, in praise of her beauty, with the aid of a small guitar.

But what about the avian ability to fly? This seems to have been almost taken for granted by these superstars of our literature. So, where are the great flight-poets and flight-poems? The dream of being able to “fly like the birds” goes back, in our culture, at least as far as the mythology of ancient Greece, to the monitory tale of Daedalus’s son, Icarus, who met his end through flying too near the sun – a powerful warning against the perils of over-reaching ambition.

But it was not for another two millennia, until the turn of the 19th century – the very era in which the short-lived Keats and Shelley were both alive – that actual human flight first became a reality – in the not bird-like form of balloons. There may be a great balloon poem, ranking with the “Skylark” and the “Nightingale” – but I haven’t heard of it. In fact, the only poet of flight whom I feel might have given Keats and Shelley a run for their money, had a life even shorter than theirs.

He was an Anglo-American named John Gillespie Magee Jr., and his fame rests on a single poem, written in 1941, at the age of 19, a few months before his death in a mid-air collision over Lincolnshire, England, where he was stationed with a Royal Canadian Air Force squadron. The poem is a sonnet called “High Flight,” and you may recognize it from its first and last lines:

“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth…
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

But the mediocrity of any more recent efforts is hardly surprising, since modern air transportation, which amounts to being shot in huge jet-propelled boxes between massive ground installations, can hardly be called “flight” in any but the most technical sense. Those who submit to such package-like treatment can no more have a sense that they are truly flying than the occupants of the floating cities we call cruise ships can feel that they are “sailing.”

We who still cherish the old ideals of flight as celebrated in verse must tolerate the mockery of those who would fling such ridicule as:

“Joy of Spring, the bird is on the wing! 
But that’s absurd – the wing is on the bird.”

But I must now confess to having myself once learned to fly – actually securing a pilot’s license – and, somewhere in the process, feeling moved to glorify the experience in a brief poem, which I called “A Flier’s World”:

This is my world – wind, wings, and solitude.
This is my life – forever here to fly –
Each landing, but an empty interlude,
Each flight, a new homecoming to the sky.


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