Millay's Poetry in A Greenwich Village Context--by Nina Miller
In the 1920s, Edna St. Vincent Millay was America's most read, most beloved poet. Critical biographer Elizabeth Atkins gives some indication of Millay's nationally "intoxicating effect on people" in describing the reception of her second collection, A Few Figs from Thistles:
To say it became popular conveys but a faint idea of the truth. Edna St. Vincent Millay became, in effect, the unrivaled embodiment of sex appeal, the It-girl of the hour, the Miss America of 1920. It seemed there was hardly a literate young person in all the English-speaking world who was not soon repeating [her verses].
Such dramatic national success had tangible effects on Millay's status among New Yorkers, naturally enough. Yet in this fact we also glimpse the dynamic circuit in which New York took cues from the national culture even while dictating most of its terms. Millay had an enormous literary and personal influence among the New York literati. Greenwich Village regarded her "with awe" even before her arrival there, on the strength of one passionate poem; John Peale Bishop and Edmund Wilson, young poets and literary editors at the middle-brow journal Vanity Fair, made it a personal mission to bring her work before a wide reading public; Genevieve Taggard and the other editors of the high-art little magazine Measure took Millay as their unofficial poet laureate; Countee Cullen, favorite son of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote his undergraduate thesis on Millay and pursued his professional career along distinctly lyrical and traditional lines; and even Dorothy Parker, embodiment of midtown urbanity , described her own significant (and significantly national) career as a matter of following Millay's example. In short, in the era literary criticism has taught us to see as dominated by avant-garde formalism, Millay's passionate sonnets were widely admired and imitated by writers of all kinds.
But, as Atkins's comment suggests, Millay stood for more than lyricism and sentiment; she represented New Womanhood and the assertive female sexuality that gave focus to the culture's diffuse ambivalence about contemporary social change. Through a poetry that was equal parts transgressive and traditional, Millay provided symbolic access to modernity for her national audience. In the Village, she served to anchor bohemian identity in Free Love, the pursuit of authentic intimate relations without interference from artificial constraints, legal or social, or their psychological residue, jealousy. No mere hedonism, the personal transformation upon which this ideal depended was seen explicitly as part of wider cultural and political change. For the period of its greatest prominence, Edna St. Vincent Millay was the exemplar of Free Love and Greenwich Village bohemia's emblem of self-understanding, its assurance of itself as a definable entity essentially different from the bourgeois mainstream it opposed. And for women writers of modernist subcultural New York-like those of this studyshe was a powerful model for their own struggle to reconcile the competing demands of a simultaneously public, iconic, and literary femininity.
Many women who were writing in the late teens and twenties had to negotiate the cultural paradigm of the New Woman, but Edna St. Vincent Millay had somehow to be her. The nature of Millay's position in bohemia makes her subcultural affiliation uniquely accessible as a discrete determining force in her work. Widely represented in accounts of bohemian life, she could not but respond in the course of representing herself. The resulting dialogue between the subculture and its feminine icon makes a highly suggestive beginning for exploring women's public poetic strategy in modernist New York. . . .
Village Economies: "My candle burns at both ends"
Not a matter of wanton wastefulness but of almost methodical, tasking exhaustiveness, the Bohemian project is thus aptly figured in the seemingly opposite, straightlacing, vow-keeping, binding contract any sonnet must be.
Debra Fried, " Andromeda Unbound:
Gender and Genre in Millay's Sonnets"
Embodying bohemian ideality presented Millay with enormous pressures, social pressure not least among them. As Edmund Wilson wrote in his fictionalized rendition of the time: "We [suitors] swarmed to her apartment, devoured her time and her force, and finally, at the period of which I write, had rendered her life intolerable." But it is also true that Millay participated actively in the construction of her own persona and significantly shaped the very subcultural ideals to which it answered. Insofar as her poems negotiated the imperatives of her authorial position, their principal task was the management of a public, unconventional, female sexualityone capable of reflecting the self-image of a national as well as a bohemian readership. In this capacity Millay was most New Woman: on the one hand, representing a concrete and accessible modernity in the sexuality her poems expressed; on the other hand, in her lyricism, her traditional forms, and even in her poetry as such, representing the rejection of the ordinary main- stream world-including its fetishization of modernity. As the symbol of Free Love, she had to balance male prerogative and conventional femininity as well as control the meaning of her own universal desirability. The sexual circulation that set such desire in motionas represented in her poems and as enacted in the buying and selling of her booksmade her acutely vulnerable to denigration as a woman. It furthermore narrowed the crucial distance between herself as a Yankee-bred bohemian and the peddling, bartering, marketing women of the Italian Village. As we shall see, Millay tackled the intricacies of her predicament partly through a synthesis of female sexuality and the typically bohemian poetics of economy.
Millay's early collections contain some of the best-known articulations of the bohemian ethos. No stranger to scarcity , Millay had been raised in a spartan New England home, and as a young professional poet kept body and soul together by writing "bread-and-butter" pieces alongside her properly "artistic" endeavors. As it happened, she was also keenly attuned to the aesthetic dimension of garret life.
But even her most seemingly straightforward paeans to Village freedom are undergirded by perfect care and thrift. Written at the highpoint of her bohemian career, "Recuerdo" spins out scenes of lighthearted romance within a kind of blueprint for resource management.
We were very tired, we were very merry
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on the hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.
We were very tired, we were very merry
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.
We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, "Good morrow, mother!" to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, "'God bless you!" for the apples and the pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.
The poem begins with an implicit refusal. Arranged contiguously, "We were very tired" and "we were very merry" are conspicuously not explained by a connecting "but." In fact, the ordering of the phrases implies that "we were merry" because "we were tired." Having suggested (or asserted) such an economy of plenitude, the speaker goes on to an image simultaneously suggestive of bohemian antiproductivity and a dynamic of pure circulation: "We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry." Each of the poem's three stanzas begins with a reiteration of this schema. If in the conventional world "merriness" produces "tiredness," in bohemia merriness is the effect of tiredness; the way to a bohemian temperament is through constant emotional expenditure. Yet the dynamic of merriment through tiredness comes back on itself: once merry, the bohemians engage in more tiring behavior (described in the ensuing stanza), which leads them back to the merriness of the subsequent refrain.
Within the poem, the display of plenitude is at least as important as the management of scarcity. While the one upholds bohemian identity, the other ensures the survival of the individual bohemian. Other details of the poem follow this basic pattern of thrift amid seeming profligacy. The speaker and her companion carelessly buy fruit ("somewhere") and give it away, along with their money, to an immigrant woman whose tearful gratitude only serves to highlight their own transcendence of material needthe difference of their bohemian poverty. But again, there is a careful, even meticulous economy at work here. The show of giving has an important ideological dimension but also serves as a refinement away from crude hoarding toward the precise measure of needsa perfect economy of no waste. Hence, "you ate an apple and I ate a pear"enough to sustain them and neatly designate their sexual difference and the "pagan" nature of their relationship. Again, money for such a pair has only the utility of gaining them access to further circulation, this time on the subway.
Yet this achieved synthesis of bohemian ideals and economic mastery suffers at least one moment of rupture. At the close of the poem, their distance from the world of needy, hoarding capitalism (immigrant and bourgeois) tidily established, the lovers look trustingly out over the rising sun, a scene belonging by rights to the realm of bohemian lyrical ideality. Yet here they find themselves confronted with a gaudy, " dripping . . . bucketful of gold." As an index to the speaker's psyche, the image registers an unconscious preoccupation with opulence beneath her willed frugality. As a commentary on the bohemian project the poem describes, it signals a certain fragility at the core.
Subliminal threats notwithstanding, "Recuerdo" is overwhelmingly successful as a classic bohemian idyll. The stakes get higher-and the balance more difficultwhen Millay figures a more explicitly sexualized female speaker. "MacDougal Street," from the same high-bohemian period, enacts the failure of a specifically sexual economy. As with "Recuerdo," the poem begins with a bohemian rhythm of pure circulation: "As I went walking up and down to take the evening air." But while the "back and forth" of the ferry ride is reasserted with every new stanza, the systematic nature of this speaker's strolland her control of the situation she inhabitsis lost after the initial moment. Yet, though it fails to put her in charge, the pattern of circulation that the line sets in motion does generate bohemian desire.
As I went walking up and down to take the evening air
(Sweet to meet upon the street, why must I be so shy?)
I saw him lay his hand upon her torn black hair;
("Little dirty Latin child, let the lady by!")
The women squatting on the stoops were slovenly and fat,
(Lay me out in organdie, lay me out in lawn!)
And everywhere I stepped there was a baby or a cat;
(Lord, God in Heaven, will it never be dawn?)
The fruit-carts and clam-carts were ribald as a fair,
(Pink nets and wet shells trodden under heel)
She had haggled from the fruit-man of his rotting ware;
(I shall never get to sleep, the way I feel!)
He walked like a king through the filth and the clutter,
(Sweet to meet upon the street, why did you glance me by?)
But he caught the quaint Italian quip she flung him from the gutter;
(What can there be to cry about that I should lie and cry?)
He laid his darling hand upon her little black head,
(I wish I were a ragged child with ear-rings in my ears!)
And he said she was a baggage to have said what she had said;
(Truly I shall be ill unless I stop these tears!)
Unlike "Recuerdo," whose title ("I remember") implies the speaker's narrative control, "MacDougal Street" places its speaker at the mercy of a defining urban context. She, too, is remembering, but tormentedly and against her will. The use of a double voice conveys the speaker's psychic oscillation from the bed where she lies to the details of the street, with the clear sensewhich the title underscoresthat this place has a magnetic hold on her. While an encounter with the object of her desire is a psychologically obvious fixation, the event is overwhelmingly defined by its setting. What is the significance of MacDougal Street?
The chaos which at first seems to emanate from the lovesick mind of the speaker is, on closer inspection, an objective chaos of the street itself. Dirty children, squatting women, babies, cats, pink nets, rotting fruit, filth, clutterMacDougal Street is rank with sensuality. More specifically, it is an overflowing market of female sexuality. Not simply "slovenly and fat." the "squatting" women of the stoops are implicated in a grotesque fertility by virtue of the teeming babies and cats surrounding them. The central sexual figure is the child, appropriately called a "baggage," both saucy child and wanton woman. Apart from her seeming flirtation with the loved man, this child brings the market explicitly into playas she "haggl[es] from the fruitman of his rotting ware." The sequence in this stanza suggests that she does so in response to the "ribald" allure of the carts. Yet given her poverty and her bartering skill, we must also assume that she is engaged in a routine struggle to feed herself. In a sense, the poem conflates poverty and explicit female sexuality, implying that it is "dirty" immigrant women who must inhabit the marketplace of physical needof "fruit-carts and clam-carts."
And yet the distance between the women of MacDougal Street and the privileged bohemian speaker is tenuous. The poem works very hard to make the separation: she is "shy" and susceptible to nervous illness; her affective life is safely privatized within parentheses, just as her experience is itself recalled from within a domestic seclusion, and her fullest embodiment comes in the form of a wish to be a cool corpse, separated. by death and rich fabrics from poverty and desire. But where the equally privileged man "walked like a king" through MacDougal Street, casual and condescending in his interactions, the female speaker moves in an agitated horror of contamination.
When the speaker expresses the direct wish to be "a ragged child with ear-rings in [her] ears," it is with the assurance that such an identification is ridiculously far-fetched. And yet, the child is the speaker's most direct link to MacDougal Street; though a "dirty, Latin child," she is clearly the speaker's sexual surrogate. Her multiple marks of class, ethnic, and generational difference serve to render the identification safe, but they also represent a fantasyalbeit a highly ambivalent oneof sexual freedom without sexual consequences. A child, she is more gamine than woman, whatever the content of her "quips." Moreover, life on the market being a foregone conclusion, she can work it aggressively to her own advantage. Where the speaker is condemned to waiting for the loved man to do more than "glance [her] by" out of fear of her own descent into MacDougal Street sexuality, the girl's relation to him is uncomplicated by either implications for her identity or consequences for her actions.
As we have seen, the "shawl-covered" immigrant "mother" of "Recuerdo" served to enhance the transcendent status of that poem's lovers. But the sexualized women of "MacDougal Street" have only a precariously inoculatory effect for this speaker and the quality of her relation to her love object. Though the public Free Lover is ultimately saved by her middle-class "American" aesthetic sensibility, the poem is unsparing in its depiction of the dangers she perceives herself as negotiating. For the bohemian speaker / the women of MacDougal Street raise the specter that taking to the streets-parading her desire, writing Free Love poetry, being the very national icon of Free Lovewill reduce her to the level of "pink nets and wet shells trodden under heel."
The Woman Lover in Nature
Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart,Lord, I do fear
Thou'st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.
Millay, "God's World"
The management of Free Love, emblematic and otherwise, spills over into Millay's nature poetry, which has as important a place in her larger New Womanly strategy as the poetry of explicitly interpersonal content. While the love poems themselves focus predominantly on the outward shape of love, the nature poems enact various of its psychosexual dimensions. Millay's many love poems trace themes of sexual desire, ephemeral passion, and amorous adventure for its own sake. They issue from a voice which is sometimes suffering, sometimes haughty and heartlessyet, as critics from Edmund Wilson to contemporary feminist Jan Montefiore have pointed out, Millay's lover voice was nearly always suggestive of a perfectly integrated, self-possessed speaker. Even those poems that thematized despair and loss imparted the sense of love and its sorrows as a personal experience for the woman speaker, an enhancement of her individuality, rather than an event generated out of her interaction with a significant Other. The speaker's identity was that of a lovermore in spite of than because of the presence of a loved one. Montefiore makes this point, citing Wilson's remark that "when [Millay] came to write about her lovers, she gave them so little individuality that it was usually, in any given case, impossible to tell which man she was writing about" (apparently a sore point).
Yet as the embodiment of Free Love and New Womanhood, Millay was bound to display not only sexual tough-mindedness but also psychological characteristics conventionally considered essential to femininity. The culturally new possibility of an actively desiring woman did not necessarily imply a radical conceptual revision of female sexuality as a whole. In fact, as we shall see in chapter 2, the scientific discovery of women as sexual beings was often presented alongside the discovery of a biological foundation for female passivity or for early marriage. A woman might be a sexual adventurer, but her "nature" demanded that she experience intimacy as submersion in a powerful male Other. The contradictions of this modern sexuality intersect in complex and even widely divergent ways with Millay's other central imperative as a woman writer, that of attaining literary authority.
Millay's nature poetry frequently stages the threatened loss of self conventionally associated with the "woman in love." In the interest of achieving a tenable persona as Free Lover and New Woman, Millay superficially divorces the ideals which in general she and bohemian ideology strive to equate: love may be good or bad but it is an experience that reinforces individual identity; beauty, however, as it appears in Nature, is the intersubjective "Other" that threatens the self. And yet, even this threat is a nominal one. Working within the Romantic tradition of transcendence and the sublime, Millay transforms a classically feminine psychological posture of self-abnegation into an achievement of literary authority.
"Assault" (1921) is a nature poem with an especially sexualizedor, more accurately, genderedframework. The speaker depicts herself as a vulnerable woman in a desolate place in fear of being "raped" by Beauty.
I had forgotten how the frogs must sound
After a year of silence, else I think
I should not so have ventured forth alone
At dusk upon this unfrequented road.
I am waylaid by Beauty. Who will walk
Between me and the crying of the frogs?
Oh, savage Beauty, suffer me to pass,
That am a timid woman, on her way
From one house to another!
What is remarkable about this poem is the contrast between the concreteness of the woman, her situation, and her sense of imperilment, on the one hand, and the abstractness of the threat itself as Beauty on the other. Of course, this threat is only sometimes abstract: in its alternate incarnation it is strikingly mundane and specific. While an aesthetic response to the croaking of frogs is arguably well within the bounds of poetic convention, the sense of acute physical imperilment expressed by the speaker seems jarringly disproportionate. But it would seem that this impression is rendered intentionally. To the extent that her responses diverge from the expected, the speaker has demonstrated the singular acuteness of her sensibilityand the singular personal risk to which it subjects her. The specifically womanly fear she experiences in passing through "savage Beauty" on her way from "one house to another" testifies simultaneously to her artistry and her femininitywith the remarkable outcome that artistry and femininity come to seem mutually interdependent.
Millay was also able to imagine this conjunction in less overtly ambivalent terms. In fact, certain of her formulations suggest a utopian synthesis of sexuality and poetic vision. In "Journey," nature provides a framework for what emerges as the unconventional psychosexual dynamics of Free Love. From the same volume as "Assault," " Journey" is a study in threatened dissolution and reintegration. In the first lines, the speaker travels down a road, symbolic of her life, and yearns to enter the natural idyll to either side of her.
Ah, could I lay me down in this long grass
And close my eyes, and let the quiet wind
Blow over me,I am so tired, so tired
Of passing pleasant places! All my life,
Following Care along the dusty road,
Have I looked back at loveliness and sighed;
Yet at my hand an unrelenting hand
Tugged ever, and I passed. All my life long
Over my shoulder have I looked at peace;
And now I fain would lie in this long grass
And close my eyes.
In this passage, the "quiet wind," the "loveliness," and "peace" promise a relief from "Care," which is suggestive of death. The "unrelenting hand" of human obligation has "tugged ever" at the human drivethe "hand"of the speaker, keeping her from her desire. At this point in the poem, the implied opposition is drawn fairly simply between dogged forward motion and its absence in tranquility. The shape of the landscape changes in the subsequent passage, when the speaker has moved "Yet onward!" What had been merely soothing becomes particularized, provocative, and alluring.
Through the long afternoon, and creeks at dusk
Are guttural. Whip-poor-wills wake and cry,
Drawing the twilight close about their throats.
Only my heart makes answer. Eager vines
Go up the rocks and wait; flushed apple-trees
Pause in their dance and break the ring for me;
Dim, shady wood-roads, redolent of fern
And bayberry , that through sweet bevies thread
Of round-faced roses, pink and petulant,
Look back and beckon ere they disappear.
Here, nature has lost its former blandness, taking on color and sensual definition. Still bound to the road, the speaker now experiences the lure of the roadside as a direct erotic appealas, in fact, multiple erotic appeals. In the short space between the nature of death and the nature of sex, the dynamics of the scene have evolved considerably: the speaker's strong desire has evoked a like response in the passive landscape. In the process of becoming mutual, this exchange has likewise become erotic and dispersed, emanating from formerly hidden sites, which come into focus only in the act of desirous expression.
Still the speaker sticks to the road ("Only my heart, only my heart responds"): she knows the consequence of straying from this discrete and driven existence is the final "peace" of dissolution into nature. Yet by the conclusion, the basic opposition that has structured the poem throughout has broken down; the final lines assume no tension between road and roadside.
. . . blue hill, still silver lake,
Broad field, brightflower, and the long white road.
A gateless garden, and an open path:
My feet to follow, and my heart to hold.
Moreover, the character of the nature described has shifted for a third time. Not the balm of grass in the wind or the eroticism of "flushed apple-trees," the elements of this final landscape have the schematic quality of mythof a literary landscape. What appears at first to be the speaker's reconciliation to a life divided between desire and duty emerges finally as erotic-aesthetic mastery.
Yet, ah, my path is sweet on either side
All through the dragging day,sharp underfoot,
And hot, and like dead mist the dry dust hangs
But far, oh, far as passionate eye can reach,
And long, ah, long as rapturous eye can cling,
The world is mine: blue hill, still silver lake,
Broad field, bright flower, and the long white road.
The speaker realizes a utopian vision of unrestrained and free-playing desire through her "rapturous," "passionate," "reach[ing]," "cling[ing]" "eye." Far from annihilating her, this sexuality gains her poetic control over the object of her desire, "the world."
By way of negotiating the problematic sexuality of the Free Lover, "Journey" achieves the ultimate bohemian ideal: the fusion of love and art. But whereas the literary authority of "Assault" depends directly on female vulnerability, the achievement of mastery depicted in "Journey" is at a distinct remove from conventional femininity. In fact, it resonates at key points with male transcendentalism: not only is the mastering "eye" itself strongly reminiscent of Emerson but also the "road" with which the speaker is all along associated puts her squarely in the tradition of Whitman. Moreover, in the most directly sexualized passage of the poem, femininity would seem to be deflected away from the speaker and onto nature, with its "wait[ing]" vines, "pink and petulant" roses, and coyly "beckon[ing]" wood-roads. Yet their invitation to her is not to dominate them as a masculine Other but to join them as the kindred being she is: the "apple-trees / pause in their dance and break the ring for me." As we have seen, she declines to join them in fear for her life as a discrete being. But that is not to say that her survival requires a steady forward progress on "the open road." To the contrary, in the crucial last lines, the road is subsumed in the larger artistic landscape, a scene which is itself testimony to the speaker's aesthetic mastery. Moreover, the "eye" from which this mastery emanates represents not masculine transcendence but female "passion" and "rapture" as the very essence of poetic sensibility.
"Journey" suggests that Millay's professional economy depended on the convergence of these seemingly opposed terms. Whereas high-modernist contemporaries like Marianne Moore and H. D. found the possibility of self-protection and even transcendence of gender in a formalist aesthetics, Millay used traditional verse to turn her (inescapable) female sexuality to artistic authority.
Despite the ultimate synthesis that "Journey" achieves, the equation of mastery with masculinity has a strong pull for Millay, and in certain other works it finds clear expression. Most striking are those instances in which her speaker achieves aesthetic-erotic mastery by dominating an expressly feminized addressee. There are traces of this tendency in the "pink and petulant" roses of "Journey," but a starker example is Millay's poem to her youngest sister, Kathleen Millay, a woman who aspired to be a writer herself and, we can only guess, lived in acute consciousness of Edna's stellar example :
Still must the poet as of old,
In barren attic bleak and cold,
Starve, freeze, and fashion verses to
Such things as flowers and song and you;
Still as of old his being give
In Beauty's name, while she may live,
Beauty that may not die as long
As there are flowers and you and song.
"To Kathleen" implicitly counts its writer among the (male) "poets of old" while unambiguously declaring the ostensible object of its praise insentient (female) "Beauty." Millay has accorded herself a consciously classic, even clicheand certainly bohemianartistic posture, expressly at the expense of "Kathleen's" own claims to creative authority. By the same mechanism, she has aggressively defended her own iconic identity as the bohemian Muse against the taint of feminine objectification. Indeed, we may see this poetic exercise as an escalation of the protective persona of "Vincent," under (short-lived) cover of which Millay made her first splash in the Village as the poet of "Renascence." While she went on signing her family correspondence this way (playing the boy to her mother and sisters), fame as a New Woman so fixed her public femininity as perhaps to necessitate-or, at least, invitea gesture like "To Kathleen."
Millay's negotiations of her singular subcultural status only rarely took such dubious form, but to the extent that Millay is an extreme case, she serves to highlight the thorny immediacy of a masculinist subcultural context for the production of a woman's poetry. By the same token, she suggests the resourcefulness with which a woman's poetry may manipulate the possibilities and imperatives of her subcultural milieu.
Indeed, the same milieu may produce vastly different poetic strategies in two women writers, as is evident in the comparison between Millay and Genevieve Taggard, the subject of the next two chapters. Obviously, Millay and Taggard were women with different personal histories and imperatives, but just as important was the structural difference of their respective positions within bohemia. Millay's almost literal equation with the symbolic life of the Village locked her in to a tight set of possibilities, as well as a significant investment in her own image. Taggard, by contrast, entered bohemia with the low profile of the feminine rank and file, which freed her to push at the contradictions of bohemian ideology as well to give herself over fully to its values. Less implicated in iconic bohemia, she had proportionately less to lose in testing the limits of its consciousness. Immediately evident to the reader will be the stark difference of her tone: where Millay has a certain (necessary) "lightness" we might associate with the thrust and parry of self-preservation, Taggard throws all of her considerable rhetorical force behind a bracing radicalism. If Millay is the Muse of bohemia, Taggard is its conscience.
From Making Love Modern: The Intimate Public Worlds of New York's Literary Women. Copyright © 1998 by Oxford UP. Excerpted from a longer essay: see the original book for the full discussion.
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