ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 7

 - World War I Poetry in England


A representative sample of English poetry of World War One is surveyed. War rhetoric and propaganda are examined and challenged in Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” and “Strange Meeting.” The relationship between home front and battle front is explored in Thomas Hardy’s “Channel Firing,” “In the Time of ‘the Breaking of Nations,’” and “I Looked up From My Writing”; Edward Thomas’s “Adlestrop”; and Siegfried Sassoon’s “ ‘Blighters.’” Isaac Rosenberg’s “Louse Hunting” is discussed as a poem of ordinary experience in the trenches.

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 7 - World War I Poetry in England

Chapter 1. Wilfred Owen Poem: “Dulce et Decorum Est” [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: Let’s turn to page 527 in your anthology where you find a famous poem by Wilfred Owen called “Dulce et Decorum Est.” And your footnote explains that that phrase is the beginning of a line from Horace, completed at the end of the poem – that is, in the last lines of the poem – “pro patria mori”: translated as, “It is sweet and proper”; sweet and right, decorous – “to die for one’s country.”

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Paul Fussell, a literary critic who wrote a brilliant book about the literature and culture of the First World War, speaks of irony as the essential trope or rhetorical figure of this body of literature, World War One poetry. Here is, in this poem, an example of irony, of a really comparatively simple kind. What are schoolboy lines from Horace, lines that Owen and many others would have learned in school to recite, to have memorized – that poetry is here held up as propaganda, as a kind of murderous lie: “it is sweet and right to die for one’s country.” You can feel it in the marvelous texture of this poetry. Against Horace’s decorous and elegant Latin, there is placed Owen’s Anglo-Saxon alliterative, inflected, strongly stressed language with its rough and actual vernacular diction.

The power and authority, too, of Owen’s writing is, well, certified, we feel, by that first person that speaks to us, that “I” who speaks as a witness to war, as a describer, as someone telling a reader elsewhere what he has seen and speaking specifically for one fallen soldier. The reception of Owen’s poetry has always been attached to a sense of Owen as a soldier and witness to war, and indeed as a victim of war, who died a week before the Armistice. These poems that you see the cover for here, Poems by Wilfred Owen, originally appeared posthumously after Owen’s death, introduced by Siegfried Sassoon – a comrade, fellow poet, fellow soldier. And as you can see, in addition to the introduction, the cover advertises also a portrait of the author. And there is Owen, in uniform, a handsome young man. This is all, as I say, very much part of the transmission of Owen’s poetry.

“Dulce et Decorum Est” is a great poem but the kind of irony that it puts forward is, I think, a simple one. It is, well, it’s a great poem. There are lots of them that when I first started teaching this course I decided I wouldn’t teach. And for a number of reasons including the sense that, gee, Yeats, Stevens, Eliot – these are hard poets and we need as much time on them as we can in order to read their work. And this poem seemed like one you might find and be able to read yourself, without me there to explain it. It also is the case that probably many of you have already read it and possibly studied it in school and talked about it. So, at any rate, this seemed to me to be, when I started teaching this course, reasons not to teach it.

Besides, well, I think the first time I taught this course was a few years after the Gulf War, the first Gulf War; and it seemed to me, in my historical innocence, that the irony that Owen is playing upon here, that he’s putting forward to us, was not one that I would need to talk about in a classroom. It seemed to me as though no one would ever quote Horace again, as anything but a lie. Of course that’s not the case. You know, as our present war has gone on, how many times have we heard people in many different forms speaking of justifications for the deaths of young men and women, on behalf of the nation? Well, as we watch our President’s approval ratings for his conduct of the war drop, one wonders: could any of us really be surprised by this? And certainly Wilfred Owen would not have been, and it seemed to me as though in fact it was important to read Wilfred Owen and to go on thinking and talking about his poetry.

And not only Owen, of course, but really the extraordinary rich body of British World War One poetry as a whole, writing that is not by any means all about battle, though much of it is, like that poem I just read. Today what I want to do is give you some sense of this body of writing. And unlike the last few lectures where I’ve concentrated on a single poet and tried to make arguments about that poet and have a thesis, today what I want to do is really just show you different poems and different poets, a range of brilliant writing. In addition to an opportunity to think about poetry and war, it’s also a good opportunity to start to fill out a little bit our sense of what modern poetry is or was, what it is or was; also, what it did not become.

World War One destroyed an English generation. Modern poetry, as we study it in this class and, I think, as you see it in this anthology, is an international phenomenon. It’s not – Well, we don’t have a lot of English poets on this syllabus. There’s T. S. Eliot, the only great English poet born in America. There’s W. H. Auden, an English-born poet who moved to America. Most of the figures that we study are in fact Americans. There’s Yeats, too. All of them are in a sense internationals. And there’s a range of important cultural reasons for this. But there’s also the simple fact of the war. Arguably, the great modern English poets died in the teens, in France in 1915 or 1917, or they survived – like Ivor Gurney, whom you have some samples from – in a wounded and injured state. I also think it’s important for us to think about the war as an important context when we go on to read Pound and Eliot, when we encounter in their poetry a sense of apocalyptic change, of civilization in crisis, which can seem pretty vague sometimes. Well, and this is true for the Yeats poems that we’ve been talking about as well. Yeats is obviously writing in the context of an Irish civil war, but it’s also the case that he’s writing in the shadow of the First World War as well.

On July 1, 1916, more than 57,000 English troops were wounded or dead. I think almost 20,000 on that day died, and in the Battle of the Somme, as it unfolded, there were a million casualties. This is a scale of human suffering and a kind of, well, a scale of human suffering that is enormous and hard to comprehend, and leaves its shadow across the writing that we will be reading. All the poets we will be talking about today are men; not quite all soldiers, but most of them. I’ve given you some quotes from Virginia Woolf, partly to remind us that the war did not only exist for men, or soldiers, and that it existed in England as much as it existed on the continent.

Chapter 2. Thomas Hardy Poem: “Channel Firing” [00:15:39]

Well, with all that said by preparation, let me show you some more poems, beginning with Thomas Hardy, on page 51. This is a little pamphlet of war poems Hardy published in 1917 and that you can find in the Beinecke. Hardy, arguably the greatest English poet, modern English poet, is a figure we don’t study in this course otherwise. He is a poet from another century. He’s born, in fact, twenty years before the American Civil War. When World War One began he was seventy-four. He wrote his poems from the perspective of rural England. It was the setting for almost all of his novels, almost all of his poetry. And “Channel Firing,” on the bottom of 51, is also set in the west of England, Hardy’s home country, and is set right on the verge of the First World War. It’s a poem about gunnery practice. Yes, it’s a dramatic monologue spoken by one of the dead, in a graveyard:

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day And sat upright. [Hardy has various gothic and supernatural fancies that
he asks us to imagine in vivid, homely terms.] While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds: [This is all this wonderful, observed
detail of rural life.]
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds, The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, ‘No;
It’s gunnery practice out at sea.
Just as before you went below;
The world is as it used to be: [This is not “The Second Coming.” Kind of
a reply to Yeats, although Yeats has written his poem yet.] ‘All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters. ‘That this is not the judgment-hour
For some of them’s a blessed thing,
For if it were they’d have to scour
Hell’s floor for so much threatening…. ‘Ha, ha. [Hardy’s God laughs like that. Frost would have understood it.]
It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).’ [This is God, so cruel that he will not
deliver the Second Coming, the Day of Judgment.] So down we lay again. ‘I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,’
Said one, ‘than when He sent us under
In our indifferent century!’ And many a skeleton shook his head.
‘Instead of preaching forty year,’
My neighbor Parson Thirdly said,
‘I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.’ Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.

Gunnery practice disturbs the dead, disrupts the ground. Here, war refuses to let the dead lie in peace, with the notion that not even the dead are safe from it, unaffected by it. The church windows shatter. Well, in some sense this is exactly what modernity might be seen to be doing to traditional English culture. Hardy is full of all those quaint gothic, archaic dictions and fancies. The dead are raising their objections here to guns that will be used very shortly in the Great War. God reassures them, though, of course, what he says here is not reassuring. He says that although “red war” is getting redder, it’s really as it always has been. This is not the end of the world that it appears to be. He’s not about to let mankind off the hook with Judgment Day. The speaker-narrator lies back and wonders if the world will ever be saner. His neighbor says, “Well, I don’t think so. I wish I had pleasured myself rather than serving that wicked God.”

In the last stanza then there is that extraordinary shift of perspective. The sound of the guns carries inland, into the heart of England, and as it does it carries back also in time to Camelot and to “starlit Stonehenge.” What happens when that happens? What is the meaning of this – the power of the sound of the guns to echo back in time? As Hardy evokes Camelot and Stonehenge, you might read this, understand this as, what? As dignifying and legitimating the present firing, the present conflict? Or in some sense does it do just the opposite? Does it suggest that England’s history and its heritage and its honor are in jeopardy? Does it in some sense demythologize the past, demystify it, make us see Camelot and Stonehenge as part of a barbaric history such as is about to unfold in 1914?

Chapter 3. Thomas Hardy Poem: “In the Time of ‘the Breaking of Nations’ ” [00:23:44]

There are a couple of other Hardy poems in your anthology, memorable and powerful, that are war poems, including on page 59, “In The Time of ‘the Breaking of Nations,’” and then on the next page, “I Looked Up From My Writing.” Interesting to look at these together. In this first poem Hardy affirms the endurance of rural life and its cycles:

Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk. II Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass. III Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will fade into night
Ere their story die.

Rural life, including rituals of love and courtship, here are represented as poetry’s truest subject and as a kind of enduring source of social life and meaning. You could compare this poem to the poem placed last in Yeats’s last poems called “Politics” that might seem to say something similar. In Hardy here, and in other poems, there’s this sort of wonderfully, self-consciously archaic language. Hardy wants to use really old dialect words, when he can, and there’s power in that. And this is a poem composed in 1915. When we read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” when we read Pound’s first Canto, remember that those poems are written and published at just the same time this poem’s being written; poems with very different ways of proceeding and different kinds of language.

Chapter 4. Thomas Hardy Poem: “I Looked Up From My Writing” [00:26:24]

In the second poem here, “I Looked Up From My Writing,” the poet, the first person, is being interrupted at his desk at night. He is startled to see:

…The moon’s full gaze on me. Her meditative misty head
Was spectral in its air,
And I involuntarily said,
‘What are you doing there?’ [Hardy works in these song forms that,
well, they sound like popular ballads, and he wants you to hear them as
part of almost a kind of folk literature, which he draws on.
The moon says to him:] ‘Oh, I’ve been scanning pond and hole
And waterway hereabout
For the body of one with a sunken soul
Who has put his life-light out. ‘Did you hear his frenzied tattle?
It was sorrow for his son
Who is slain in brutish battle,
Though he has injured none. ‘And now [the moon says] I am curious to look
Into the blinkered mind [the poet’s]
Of one who wants to write a book
In a world of such a kind.’ Her temper [the poet then says] overwrought me,
And I edged to shun her view [to get out of the moonlight]
For I felt assured she thought me
One who should drown him too.

Here, a neighbor father, crazed with grief at the death of his son, has drowned himself, killed himself, and the moon implies in its gaze that the poet should do so, too. In such a world it seems writing poems is a kind of – well, even surviving is a kind of guilty privilege. You could compare with this poem Kipling’s poem; Kipling, one of the great apologists of empire, saying on page 153 of your book in the voice of a soldier, “If any question why we [we soldiers] died, / tell them, because our fathers lied” – a statement that is poignant, poignant and powerful in part because Kipling’s own son died in the war [“Epitaphs of the War”].

Chapter 5. Edward Thomas Poem: “Adlestrop” [00:29:10]

This is a volume of poems published in 1917 by Edward Thomas and a portrait of Thomas, another soldier poet, not represented however as a soldier here: represented rather as an English citizen in tweed, a man out in and of nature. Thomas was born in 1878, so he was thirty-six when the war began. He began, almost at the same time as the war began, to write poems. He begins writing under the influence of his friend, Robert Frost. Frost and Thomas have a fascinating relationship, an important transatlantic exchange. Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” he sometimes described as being about Thomas and Thomas’s own sense of regret and hesitation and indirection, to which Frost contrasted himself. Frost became in England a poet of New England whom Thomas was reading at that moment in such a way as to help enable him, Thomas, to become a great poet of England and of England’s landscape and countryside and nature. There’s a good selection from Thomas in your anthology. I will read my favorite poem by Thomas, which is the first one, called “Adlestrop,” on page 231:

Yes, I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June. The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop – only the name And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky. And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

It’s a wonderful poem in its simplicity, modesty, directness, and reticence which yet provides the most expansive and exhilarating sense of the English landscape and of the power of a moment in time to enlarge and be pregnant with meaning. Notice Thomas’s really superb nonchalance and offhandedness and simplicity. “It was late June.” “The steam hissed.” There’s a kind of colloquial clarity and confidence, quite different from the vernacular language in the Hardy poems I was just reading, which are also poems of the countryside. Here the name, the odd name “Adlestrop,” prompts a memory, prompts a memory in such a way that a moment in time stands out, separated from other moments; just as the odd, unpoetic, unbeautiful name “Adlestrop” seems to stand out. There’s a kind of poignant tension between the unbeautifulness of the name, the awkwardness, and yet the dignity of the name, and the sense of natural beauty that the poem will unfold.

Here, the stopping of the train is like the interruption by memory of normal consciousness that’s the basis of the poem. There’s a sense that in this memory the poet somehow saw the name – presumably, I suppose, saw it on a signboard in the station, as you roll into the station and you see where you are. But there’s more suggestion in it than that. It’s as if this moment were one in which the name and the place, the word and the thing, fully coincided, fully coincided in an experience of presence and immediacy where the world is all there and named, located, placed. The figure, the metaphor for this semiotic unity of word and thing is bird-song. Here bird-song is a kind of natural language, a language in which nature speaks, and speaks in such a way that the particular voice carries the import and authority of the general, just as the one bird seems to sing with many bird-songs by the end of the poem. And so Adlestrop itself suddenly seems to signify more, calling to mind in kind of rippling and radiating circles Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, England – all of it, the poet’s home.

At the same time it’s also clear that this epiphany is a remembered experience. It’s recalled. The poet’s first word, “yes” – a wonderful affirmation – situates the poem in a dialogue as if someone had just said, “Have you ever been to Adlestrop?” Whether this dialogue is actual or internal, it doesn’t really matter. Part of the poem’s force derives from the status of this moment as something remembered, and remembered within the context of a nation at war. Although I believe Thomas wrote the poem the year he enlisted but, I think, before his enlistment, you might feel as though Thomas is already on the train for France. There’s a way in which the context of the war, too, shadows the poem and remains present in it. Don’t you feel it in certain details: the eerie lack of people in this place? “No one left and no one came.” In a sense it is an image of the English countryside at a moment in which it is being emptied out, its young men sent to France to die, a kind of no man’s land already.

Chapter 6. Siegfried Sassoon Poem: “Blighters’ ” [00:38:21]

This is Siegfried Sassoon in uniform in 1916. Sassoon’s poetry centers on hallucinatory overlays of home-front and battle-front. Let’s look at “ ‘Blighters’ ” on page 389, a wonderfully angry poem; a poem that is situated in a music hall, presumably a London music hall:

The House is crammed; tier beyond tier they grin
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
‘We’re sure the Kaiser loves the dear old Tanks!’ I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or ‘Home, sweet Home’,
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

Here, there’s an analogy between the music hall and the theater of war. It’s as if the English populace were spectators only, consuming as entertainment war propaganda, which makes the poet hate them. He imagines here the eruption of the real into this representational space, and imagines it as a kind of attack on the working and middle class audiences of the music hall. The soldier becomes, in fantasy here, the spectator, as the war turns around and comes back, reversed by a kind of evil charm or spell, coming home. And “home” is here made to rhyme with “Bapaume,” bringing battlefront and home front together as a rhyme. There’s an aggression towards the urban crowd here that recalls and exaggerates Yeats’s attitude at the same time, really in the same years, in poems like “A Coat” or “The Fisherman.”

Chapter 7. Isaac Rosenberg Poem: “Louse Hunting” [00:41:09]

In other Sassoon poems, the war comes home in other ways. For example, in “The Rear-Guard,” just down the page here; or “Repression of War Experience,” which is about traumatic repetition of battle; or in “Dreamers,” where there is, again, a kind of juxtaposing of life in the trenches and life in the city. Rather than dwell longer on them though, and to make sure I get time for a couple more poems, I want to move on and consider – Here is a collection of Sassoon’s poems, Counter-Attack, and this is The Poetry of Isaac Rosenberg. Here’s a frontispiece with Rosenberg in a military coat. Rosenberg, besides a poet, was also an artist and created these self-portraits. “Self-Portrait in France, 1915.” Rosenberg, in contrast to Sassoon, was poor, Jewish, and writes a rather different kind of poem from those we have been looking at today. One of the most famous and extraordinary is “Louse Hunting,” on page 506; a little bit further on in your book:

Nudes – stark and glistening,
Yelling in lurid glee. Grinning faces
And raging limbs
Whirl over the floor one fire.
For a shirt verminously busy
Yon soldier tore from his throat, with oaths
Godhead might shrink at, but not the lice.
And soon the shirt was aflare
Over the candle he’d lit while we lay. Then we all sprang up and stript
To hunt the verminous brood. [Here the soldiers are stripping their
clothes off and attacking the lice that are attacking them.]
Soon like a demons’ pantomime
The place was raging. [It’s nighttime and the candles and flares are
throwing shadows.]
See the silhouettes agape,
See the gibbering shadows
Mixed with the battled arms on the wall.
See gargantuan hooked fingers
Pluck in supreme flesh
To smutch supreme littleness.
See the merry limbs in hot Highland fling
Because some wizard vermin
Charmed from the quiet this revel
When our ears were half lulled
By the dark music
Blown from Sleep’s trumpet.

A strange place for this poem to end. “Nudes,” the poem begins. It’s shocking and comic and pleasurable to see the armored men, uniformed men suddenly exposed – just naked bodies – to see them here bedeviled not by a gas attack or machine guns but lice, fleas. Rosenberg is writing not in those little crafted stanzas of Hardy or, for that matter, of Thomas. He’s writing in a kind of strongly stressed free verse with variable line lengths, lots of – well there’s a sense in which the poetry itself is exuberant and naked and full of life and vital; and naturalistic, you could say, in its representation. Rosenberg is giving us an anecdote from the trenches, and yet it slips very quickly into a sense of fable. The louse hunting, where these big men hunt these little things, these fleas: it becomes – when it’s thrown by shadow as a kind of flickering image on the tent or trench wall, when it becomes represented, so to speak – it becomes a battle scene where gigantic forces “smutch supreme littleness.” We are put in mind of how men are to the Gods as flies to men. This is an analogy as old as, and found in, Homer. We are also put in mind of how the war is, in fact, anything but a revel, though it, too, may have been provoked by a cause as insignificant and hard to trace as “some wizard vermin.”

Those last lines, then, are so ominous and strange. Though these men have been brought to life from sleep, there’s a sense that the trumpet will sound for them again and they will enter a dark sleep from which they won’t wake, which is just the point of the next poem, “Returning, We Hear the Larks.” I won’t take time to read it, though, or talk about it, but instead I’d like to conclude – This is another great poet of the war who survived, though in, as I say, a wounded condition mentally, Ivor Gurney.

Chapter 8. Wilfred Owen Poem: “Strange Meeting” [00:48:10]

I want to conclude with a poem by Owen. Let’s see, this is page 528, just following “Dulce et Decorum Est,” “Strange Meeting.” This is a poem that – well, if the first poem demystifies one crucial thread of war ideology, that it is right and good to die for the country, this poem takes on another crucial element of war ideology that the enemy is an “other”: the enemy is unlike me. Like Rosenberg, like Rosenberg’s poem, this one comes out of and returns eventually to sleep. It is a kind of dream vision, Dantesque in its mode, and full of powerful iambic pentameter:

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall, –
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell. With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
‘Strange friend,’ I said, ‘here is no cause to mourn.’
‘None,’ said the other, ‘save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, tough nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now….’

So, we’ll stop now and move on to poems written during the same period and associated with Imagism on Monday.

[end of transcript]

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