National Poetry Month, day 27: A Lesson from Mr. McLeod on “slipping the surly bonds of Earth”

I suppose there’s an entire genre that can be summed up as “Young person meets the teacher who unlocks their potential”. It’s a type of story that I’ve always warmed to, from Luke Skywalker seeking the wisdom of Ben Kenobi to Bilbo Baggins (OK, not a young person, but still) learning from Gandalf…to the books of John Bellairs, which always paired a young person with an adult wisdom-figure.

One of my very favorite instances of such a story is the 1993 film The Man Without a Face, in which Mel Gibson plays a reclusive schoolteacher, Mr. McLeod who is not allowed to teach anymore. Young Nick Stahl is Chuck Norstadt, a kid who needs tutoring so he can pass the test to get into the military school he wants to attend, and he somehow convinces Mr. McLeod to teach him. Mr. McLeod is badly disfigured by an accident in his past, and the circumstances of that accident will come back to haunt him, and young Chuck Norstadt.

The movie covers some similar ground as Dead Poets Society from several years prior, but for me, The Man Without a Face tells its story with far greater respect for its characters and insight for the relationships between them. Chuck isn’t just a kid who needs tutoring; he has issues of his own, like a dysfunctional family (he is the middle sibling, all to the same mother and all to different fathers). McLeod wasn’t just disfigured in a car accident; a troubled student had been in the car with him, and the questions that incident rose have dogged Mr. McLeod ever since, leading to his reclusive existence in a giant lonely house on the coast of Maine. (By the way, that house? Swooooon. Of all the houses in movies that I’ve ever wanted to live in, that one is at the top of the list.)

Along the way–before the story’s inevitable sad, and yet somehow hopeful, conclusion (which The Man Without a Face earns far more convincingly than Dead Poets Society did)–Mr. McLeod tutors young Chuck in geometry and rhetoric and other subjects, including poetry. The film doesn’t dwell on this, choosing instead to focus on the human relationships in the story. It becomes clear that Chuck is really looking for more than just a tutor, and Mr. McLeod is looking for more than a student. Both are looking to heal, for very different reasons. The film’s central insights aren’t just shoved on the characters, but they actually have to work for them.

At one point Mr. McLeod, knowing that Chuck wants to be a pilot, chooses a specific poem for him to read, handing him a book and telling him the page number and saying, “It’s all of fourteen lines, surely you can handle that.”

Chuck later reads the poem, and the film gives us a voiceover of him doing so. The poem is “High Flight”, by John Gillesipie Magee Jr. Magee, a pilot in addition to a poet, was killed in a flight accident in December 1941, just four months after he wrote “High Flight”, which has become his most famous work. He wrote “High Flight” in August 1941, which means that this poem entered the world right around the same time as my own mother. That’s kind of neat!

“High Flight” has had a life of its own, with its soaring and aspirational lyricism and its concluding lines, which sound like flight is the way by which humans leave this world and enter something higher. President Ronald Reagan quoted the poem in his address to the nation on the night of the Challenger disaster, and President Jed Bartlet would also quote it on The West Wing. It has been set to music a number of times (see below), and of course, the quote in The Man Without a Face, in which “High Flight” is the gift of a teacher to a student, because like all good teachers, this one knows what this student needs.

“High Flight”, by John Gillespie Magee Jr.

“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.”

In reading “High Flight” anew for this post, I noticed that the last stanza mentions that our high-flying human pilot has gone higher than eagles or larks. Higher, even, than The Lark Ascending.

Sometimes life connects the dots.

Original manuscript of “High Flight”. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

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