Modern critical approaches such as deconstruction and hermeneutics can be dispelled by reverting to the poetics Gerard Manley Hopkins implies in the most religious of his verse. Russell Murphy illuminates this point by examining a trope from his poem The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe .
It is ironic that in the midst of the present cacophony of vying moral, spiritual, and social authorities, poetry is in most intellectual quarters regarded as a species of discourse which can no longer - perhaps never could express universal truths since its meaning, we say, varies from reader to reader, culture to culture, age to age, and so forth.Ironic because poetry is the language of feeling. That is, it expresses that which is intuited rather than thought out or reasoned, a fact which most modern criticism manages to- or at least tries to - avoid. When authentic feeling speaks, the mind, thankfully, falls silent. That moment is the moment of communication before it is understood, but it is not the critical moment. The critical moment occurs when the mind re-engages the experience of the poem at its, the mind's, own level of discourse, assuming, quite happily, that there is no other. The results are all too often monuments to erudition but not contributions to the understanding of poetry. Indeed, if current trends continue, they seem instead to be contributing more to our confusion than to our understanding, and in the midst of that confusion, the efficacy of poetic discourse as a cultural institution has been, and is continuing to be, diminished if not utterly lost.The difficulty, of course, lies in the fact that the act of both writing and reading fall between the intuitive moment that is creative of poetry and the intuitive moment that is receptive to it. The logical and interpretive processes that both reading and writing - indeed, verbal communication in general - require necessarily intrude and can threaten the intuitive experience that poetry both springs from and speaks to. If there were only readers and writers this would be no problem; but once the logical and interpretive faculties are engaged, there is the added intrusion of the critical faculties, and all too often, by the time everything is said and done, the poem has been rendered in terms so contrary to its modus operandi that we may as well imagine, as we are all too often encouraged to, that we are in fact encountering poor philosophy or poor religion rather than great art, i.e. poetry.I will venture that many of the present peccadilloes created for our study of the poet and poetry by post. Modern critical approaches such as deconstruction and hermeneutics can be dispelled by reverting to the poetics Gerard Manley Hopkins implies in the most religious of his verse. Much of what I shall say about poetry can be applied to art in general, although I do wish to stress that it is the language - based nature of poetic communication that gives it both its peculiar strengths and weaknesses as a source of study.To illuminate the point I wish to make about Hopkins and truth telling, I shall examine a trope from his poemThe Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe (60). I shall also be bringing to bear a contrasting, if not contending trope from the poetry of Matthew Arnold, a near contemporary who also hoped to rediscover in poetic discourse a universal medium of determinate expression, what he called touchstones. Teilhard de Chardin and the concept of noosphere Before examining those tropes, however, I shall first introduce Teilhard de Chardin's concept of the noosphere, not simply because it enhances the importance of satisfactorily resolving the question of poetry and truth-telling, but because his image of the noosphere is itself an imaginative complement to those tropes from Arnold and Hopkins. My central argument is that there is a reasonable basis to the truths conveyed to us by poetry because its intuitive insights are expressed in the medium of words, themselves logical structures. However, because rules of logic prevail in our interpreting for ourselves an otherwise intuitive discourse that is not verbal at all, and is instead hyper-logical, we must diminish the intuitive insight precisely as we strengthen its logical basis.
All I am really saying is that none of us would disagree that the experience of the poem far outstrips any critical rendering or revaluation of it. Poetry expresses truth in its own manner, not in the manner of painting or music or philosophy, all sister arts to which poetry has been compared; but for the very reason that the poem expresses itself, not something else, we receive the message in some meta-critical, hyper-logical phase of our experience of the reading. While we must not confuse that message with any subsequent renderings of it in critical terms, still, we must ascertain what the message is to be certain that there was one. In sum, we are compelled to interpret - or at least to rearticulate the poem. It is during that secondary activity that poetical truth becomes critical grist.
Such is also often the case with religious truths. The moment of religious insight rarely survives translation. Indeed, the affinity that much of poetry has for religion, and that much of religion has for poetry, very likely stems from this same requirement that each has for commingling an acceptable absolutism with individual coordinates of belief, doubt, and understanding. In their purest forms, the best religion and the best poetry address themselves in universal terms to those instances when something utterly personal and particular is at stake and/or under consideration. As a consequence, the power of each to convince relies on the need of the individual to hear the expression of an authentic truth whose significance and therefore veracity is wholly private, rather than relying on an objectification of that truth into publicly verifiable terms, such as we require philosophy or science to do.Simply put, the truths of both poetry and religion rely upon acts of individual faith. The problem in our time is that while we will happily accept this commonplace inasmuch as religion is concerned, we are increasingly loathe to accept it as validating poetic discourse as well. This would not be a problem of any major dimensions if no poet had ever written in an effort to clarify spiritual confusions, be they personal, interpersonal, or social. However I cannot name a poet of any consequence from any age whose primary consideration was not directly related to our spirituality and its attendant crises and confusions.
We fail to hear the poet when we fail to hear poetry as the expression of authentic truths. If this failure is merely an aesthetic one, we lovers of poetry might just as well go merrily on our way, but I am arguing that it is a spiritual one, and thus a large part of our present difficulties with belief are manifested not in the religious sphere with attacks upon doctrine and dogma but in the literary sphere with the present critical assault upon poetry as a meaningful discourse whose exact meaning can be immediately and directly discerned.The problem is really quite simple: If a line of poetry can mean anything, then it essentially means nothing. What the poet says is meaningless, while what the politician says goes on the daily news, what the scientist says goes into every bite of the food we eat, and what the religionist says, if he means it, remains not ours but the Word of God.Surely, even if I overstate my case, who would deny that the desuetude poetical and rhetorical discourse have fallen into over the past two centuries as species of objective knowledge has been accompanied by a proportional rise in the claim to objective authority on the part of other forms of discourse, primarily the analytical and the critical. Do we not seem to be in the process of cutting out the poet's tongue by ignoring the common human concerns at the heart of his communications for the sake of an overly scrupulous regard for the objective qualities of those things we call words, as if the tool were more vital than the craftsman? If that creature called the human can embody the truth, then he must embody it in every, one of his actions, not merely in a selective series of specialized endeavors, all of them logocentric, among which, in increasingly hierarchical and privileged ways, some are even more select than others.
If the noosphere is not an illusion,Teilhard de Chardin writes in The Phenomenon of Man,Is it not much more exact to recognise in . . . communications and exchanges of ideas the higher form, in which they conclude by becoming fixed in us, of the less supple modes of biological enrichmentsIt is vital to understand exactly what Teilhard is driving at. Ideas do indeed shape us. In fact,The further the living being emerges from the anonymous masses by the radiations of his own consciousness, the greater becomes the part of his activity which can be stored up and transmitted by means of education and imitation.(224)Our biological destiny We - each of us, the poet included - have the biological vote, so to speak. According to Teilhard, we have authority over our biological destiny, and that destiny is shaped through the communication of ideas, through language. The distinguished twentieth-century philosopher of science Karl R. Popper utters a similar conviction about the species-formative power of language when he speaks of the "tremendous biological advance of descriptive and argumentative language": [The linguistic formulation of theories allows us to criticize and eliminate them without eliminating the race that carries them.] (70)So that mode of discourse which triumphs does more than just set the tone of public debate and determine the course of public policy; it executes an interior set of commands that then predicates the direction the species must take. Therefore, to criticize and eliminate from serious consideration the linguistic formulation of theories which we call poetry involves far-reaching, extra literary consequences. In a word, the issue is one of conviction - and of the varying degrees of authority the community assigns to the various means of its expression. If poetry had indeed become too slippery a species of discourse to contain so hard and fast a thing as conviction, then the insights of the poet are not as racially valuable as, say, the insights of the scientist or theologian - and they are not if, as a culture, we convince ourselves that the poet expresses personal opinions rather than universal truths.I see a far deeper and far more serious problem than even that, however. I say that we mistrust the words of the poet because the poet speaks for no one other than himself. Consequently, whenever we find the emphasis in the study of poetry shifting from content to structure, from the rhetorical to the critical, we must discern, rather than any essential mistrust in the power of words to convey conviction, an essential mistrust of each other, or at the very least of individuality, as embodiments of anything more enduring than hydrogenated carbon.To elucidate the true moral dimensions of this problem, I turn again to Teilhard, who recognized, or at least trusted, that the hyper personal had to be the ultimate spiritual expression of the biological process that is evolution, or else there is no center. For him, as for myself, it is necessary not merely to entertain this as an idea; we must embrace it as the final act of both a secular and a spiritual belief. In us, Teilhard argues, evolution becomes free to dispose of itself - it can give itself or refuse itself:Not only do we read in our slightest acts the secret of its proceedings; but for an elementary part we hold it in our hands, responsible for its past to its future. (225)Even if Teilhard is scientifically wrong,his theory enables us to see how our cultural choices are anything but parochial - are indeed overwhelmingly universal in their impact and implications. Is this [responsibility] grandeur or servitude he rightly asks. Therein, he replies, lies the whole problem of action (225).Our actions do affect both the past and the future to the very core of our being, inasmuch as they have the potential to cut us off from what was a source of nourishment to our ancestors, thereby depriving our descendants of that same succor we would deny ourselves. So to ignore a possibility - that like science and philosophy, poetry can also speak truths common and universal may be more than a temporal turning of our backs on a particularized field of human endeavor; it may in fact be turning our backs on our very selves.The foregoing was necessary to establish the spirit of thought in which I wish to examine the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, specifically his poem The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe.
For us poor children of an Age of Science, the beauty of nineteenth-century poetics is that it was the first to give expression to a mistrust of poetical truths while still embracing the old convictions. When Matthew Arnold turns to Aristotle to insist that poetry possesses a higher truth and a higher seriousness than history, we must remind ourselves that Arnold has nevertheless ceased to write poetry. Convinced that a period of critical concentration, rather than one of creative expansion, is at hand, he is content now only to study it and the cultures which produce it. In sum, he distrusts the creative process because its results cannot be tested against a specific set of standards, and so he sets out to discern that set of standards by which we can judge and measure products of the imagination. In the same way, his plea for disinterestedness, as much as it ennobles the intellect, neglects the spirit, which must struggle continuously to separate communal truth from communal falsehood for its very personal survival.If there is such a thing as the truth, it is knowable. That is the personal dimension. If it is knowable, it is expressible. That is the communal dimension. They meet best in the artist, who can transmute personal experience into universal expression. Thus, when the poet speaks with a commanding urgency of conviction, we are compelled if not bound to listen and, we would hope, to hear. But we can do this only personally, not communally.Arnold was trying to restore that communal validity to poetry by appealing to our personal need for its power to console, failing to see that only a communal poetry can satisfy both requirements. It is the great paradox of the nineteenth century: poetry must encompass all aspects of a community's values and institutions, and yet it can only occur through individuals. What else do we see in Wordsworth and Shelley and Keats, with their universalized selves, than the search for the objective subjective, a search that culminates in Browning's dramatic monologues and Arnold's turn to criticism?But the paradox remains, for the self cannot be the source of communal values; only the community can contain those - and then wait for the individual to give them expression. That is why T.S. Eliot could later identify the dilemma of the nineteenth century as a dissociation of sensibilities: where they looked for beliefs, they found mind bound confusion. It was this continual practice of abstracting the concrete and concretizing the abstract that drove Arnold to prose and the pre-Raphaelites to prostitutes. Nearly a century later, Eliot himself would find the hint half guessed, the gift half understood in the Incarnation (Dry Salvages V); I am now going to suggest that Hopkins found this same pragmatic solution by playing self-search off against an inherited body of belief, the Body of Faith that is Roman Catholicism. That, in other words, there is no objective subjective unless self is submerged in a larger context that is, nevertheless, not quite so large as the Platonic universe. That, indeed, the very power of Hopkins's poetry lies in the way in which he individualizes a common set of objectifiable beliefs which are themselves founded not upon the abstractions of ritual and theology but upon the phenomenologically hyper-personal in the very real incarnation of the godhead in one singular individual through the medium of a human mother's womb; i.e. Jesus Christ who is,when all is done,
Both God's and Mary's Son.
(l. 71- 2)At the risk of sounding either scolding or fatuous, none of what I have just said has any significance except in the context of my earlier discussion of the validity of poetic discourse as objective expression. By the same token, I am not saying that the truth content of Hopkins' poetry depends upon the truth content of the beliefs comprising the Roman Catholic faith. I am saying that Hopkins, by expressing his personal confrontation with an objectifiable quantity called Roman Catholicism, objectifies poetry that to most must otherwise seem highly subjective and personal because, at heart, Roman Catholicism for Hopkins embraces a universal absolute in absolutely human terms.
For one thing, Hopkins's use of Roman Catholic belief does not leave us in much doubt as to his intentions. His utilizing, for whatever reason, a preexisting cosmology in which to work out the struggles of his own personal psychological and spiritual dilemmas, failures, and triumphs makes what would otherwise be the wholly?and painfully-subjective into a public and objective engagement with universal experience; yet he does so without ever distorting the individual bases of the truth?seeking and poem-making. The I of a Hopkins poem is unstinting and unrelenting for the very reason that we are forced to imagine that speaker and poet are one.So, for another thing, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins certainly expresses conviction - or at least its reasonable illusion; thus, too, we suspect that he, or at least the speaker, is a believer in the truths he is expressing. But that is not to the point. The point is that his poetry is an expression not of those beliefs but, as Eliot once nicely put it, of what it feels like to be the person who believes them. That is to say, we admire Hopkins not for what he expresses of Catholic doctrine, but of how he expresses the spirit of faith operating in the individual. That is what makes Hopkins' efforts poetry and not theology or philosophy. But no less true.However, as we well know, conviction is not limited to expressions of faith. One can be as convinced of not as of is, of never as of forever. Hopkins again provides us with a model of how the urgency of conviction compels an expression that does not beg pardon for the possibility that it had erred. When he stands, both intellectually and spiritually confronting the chasm of doubt and despair, is it metaphor or accurate measure that makes the abyss mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man fathomed Whichever, the poet anticipates our incredulity: Hold them cheap/May who ne'er hung there (No worst, there is none 65).In blunt terms, Hopkins is no fool, and that is what makes him so much ours. He protests in advance the possibility that we may doubt his report as just so much poetry. Apparently, too, crises of faith have already become experiences that one does not take for granted as being common, human ones.
That serenity was a luxury which Wordsworth could afford but Hopkins can only borrow - and we post-moderns can only imagine must have meaning only as poetic discourse, not as any true statement of psychological and spiritual affairs. For serenity of expression is fostered by an attitude that understanding, not agreement, is the response the poet hopes to elicit. Indeed, it would be fair to say that what distinguishes modern poetry - and what nation of the godhead in one singular individual through the medium of a human mother's womb; i.e. Jesus Christ who is,when all is done,
Both God's and Mary's Son.
1.71-2)At the risk of sounding either scolding or fatuous, none of what I have just said has any significance except in the context of my earlier discussion of the validity of poetic discourse as objective expression. By the same token, I am not saying that the truth content of Hopkins' poetry depends upon the truth content of the beliefs comprising the Roman Catholic faith. I am saying that Hopkins, by expressing his personal confrontation with an objectifiable quantity called Roman Catholicism, objectifies poetry that to most must otherwise seem highly subjective and personal because, at heart, Roman Catholicism for Hopkins embraces a universal absolute in absolutely human terms. For one thing, Hopkins' use of Roman Catholic belief does not leave us in much doubt as to his intentions. His utilizing, for whatever reason, a preexisting cosmology in which to work out the struggles of his own personal psychological and spiritual dilemmas, failures, and triumphs makes what would otherwise be the wholly - and painfully - subjective into a public and objective engagement with universal experience; yet he does so without ever distorting the individual bases of the truth-seeking and poem-making. The I of a Hopkins poem is unstinting and unrelenting for the very reason that we are forced to imagine that speaker and poet are one.So, for another thing, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins certainly expresses conviction - or at least its reasonable illusion; thus, too, we suspect that he, or at least the speaker, is a believer in the truths he is expressing. But that is not to the point. The point is that his poetry is an expression not of those beliefs but, as Eliot once nicely put it, of what it feels like to be the person who believes them. That is to say, we admire Hopkins not for what he expresses of Catholic doctrine, but of how he expresses the spirit of faith operating in the individual. That is what makes Hopkins' efforts poetry and not theology or philosophy. But no less true.However, as we well know, conviction is not limited to expressions of faith. One can be as convinced of not as of is, of never as of forever. Hopkins again provides us with a model of how the urgency of conviction compels an expression that does not beg pardon for the possibility that it had erred. When he stands, both intellectually and spiritually confronting the chasm of doubt and despair, is it metaphor or accurate measure that makes the abyss mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man fathomed Whichever, the poet anticipates our incredulity: Hold them cheap/May who ne'er hung there . . . No worst, there is none (65).In blunt terms, Hopkins is no fool, and that is what makes him so much ours. He protests in advance the possibility that we may doubt his report as just so much poetry. Apparently, too, crises of faith have already become experiences that one does not take for granted as being common, human ones. This, which I know, I speak with mind serene.
That serenity was a luxury which Wordsworth could afford but Hopkins can only borrow and we post-moderns can only imagine must have meaning only as poetic
discourse, not as any true statement of psychological and spiritual affairs. For serenity of expression is fostered by an attitude that understanding, not agreement, is the response the poet hopes to elicit. Indeed, it would be fair to say that what distinguishes modern poetryand what on empirical observation, not only as profound as E=MC but as accurate. That it also has a moral and spiritual dimension to its rendering should make it all the more, not less, valid as a human observation.SummaryTo summarize to this point, what makes Hopkins so appealing to the modern mind is that, very much like the poet, he admits a personal bias to his point of view, but then, very much like the scientist, he makes his subject matter a sphere of experience that transcends point of view for its validation. Mathew Arnold will provide us with an appropriate foil to this very technique. For he works in the old mode of speaking for all of us when he appears to be speaking only for himself, or of speaking for himself when he appears to be speaking for all of us. Is it not Arnold's constantly appropriating for himself an authority we do not confer upon him that gives him both his moral power and, when the device backfires, his moral bankruptcy? And. is that not the continuation of the older Romantic mode and its very strengths and weaknesses? We believe Shelley only as long as we believe that Shelley believes Shelley.We do not believe that the older poets purposefully set us up, but many of the more difficult aspects of modernism were the results of elaborate verbal and generic attempts to appear not to be setting us up - or, equally as likely, attempts to set us up in no uncertain terms. The result, naturally, was a total ambivalence of intentionality which only a few - the better Yeats, the older Eliot - have managed to escape. We see the beginnings of confused intentions in Arnold's great cultural trope:The Sea of Faith Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. If we accept these lines as having a greater truth content than Hopkins' image of the Holy Ghost brooding over the bent/World ...with warm breast and with ah! bright wings, we do so, first of all, because the Holy Ghost sounds like a tenet of faith that requires a personal conviction to be believed and, more important, because Arnold slips his objective - sounding observation into the midst of a personalized bit of musing on the thoughts which the sounds of the surf bring to his mind, thoughts which he is sharing not with us readers, incidentally, but with a companion: But now I only hear/ Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.That Arnold can then conclude Dover Beach by reading the riot act to the human condition in general and Western culture in particular is an indulgence we allow him simply because he did not ask for the privilege to begin with. One wonders whether or not it is this very typical nineteenth-century technique of gleefully slipping back and forth between the personal and the universal, the particular and the metaphorical, the boudoir and the pulpit, that by the twentieth century becomes the dictum that poetry is the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another-thereby rendering the words of the poet ineffectual as any sort of truth-telling.So back to Hopkins, who unabashedly says just what he means, since that is his whole aim. I say, the passage which I am now about to cite from The Blessed Virgin begins, and we must pause for a moment just to savor that I say. We do not say it; a lover talking to his companion while watching the lights flickering on the French coast does not say it; Prufrock, who does not exist, does not say it to some spectral you, who else does not exist; but I, Gerald Manley Hopkins, say it, and I say it to you, the reader:I say that we are wound with mercy round and round as if with air; the same is Mary, more by name. She, wild web, wondrous robe mantles the guilty globe.That image is, of course, quite a contrast from, and with, Arnold's in Dover Beach. I do not wish to make any claim that Hopkins is right, Arnold wrong, anymore than anyone else can make a claim to the contrary, but I see a problem in our current tendency to be too hasty to say that both are wrong because both are only uttering poeticized convictions, not objective truths. (To this we might add a secondary response, ostensibly more forgiving but not less pernicious at heart, which asks us to view neither poet as wrong or right but uttering instead what I.A. Richards calls quasi-statements. To propose that tests of truth and falsehood cannot - or should not - be applied to poetic statements may do justice to the intentions of some poets, but does not do justice to poetry as a species of human discourse.) It is with these sorts of assessments that I refuse to concur for reasons which I have already established. Otherwise, all I wish to take note of is the single, simple fact that each poet imagines a mind - girdled globe- feels the pressure of the noosphere, as it were, and each expresses that perceived meaning in no uncertain terms. For Arnold, that action, as a phenomenon, springs forth in an image of a massy globe stripped of its nourishing veneer of faith. For Hopkins, it hovers between the actualization of the possible, the spreading of Mary's name being a part of the spreading of the Christian ethic, after all, and that being the spreading of a doctrine of mercy, forgiveness, and love. Poetry is ideas made palpable. For their palpability to retain any kind of contentual integrity and fruitfulness, however, we are required to imagine that the poet says what he means, not something intended to lead us to his meaning. Arnold's bright girdle and Hopkins's Mary-mantled world are not figures of speech but figures of an idea, and thus the truest expression of that idea, each manifestly true or false as we encounter them not as tokens of emotion or faith but as the very substance of thought. In the latter case, indeed, Hopkins's I say allows us to accept or reject the conclusion, but he does not beg us to conclude that it is merely a fanciful trope.I know that I run the danger of doing poetry a greater disservice by insisting that we can see it as a forum, as valid as any other, for the testing of ideas. I cannot forget Keats' warnings against the dull brain that perplexes and retards, his urging toward Negative Capability wherein there is no irritable reaching after fact and reason. But I can appeal to the same authority who also saw that Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty - who was capable, in other words, of apprehending what Teilhard calls the phosphorescence of thought (183).I do find it intriguing that when Teilhard de Chardin describes the noosphere as a biological, planetary construct, he describes it very much as if it were Arnold's earthgirdling Sea of Faith or Hopkins's Mary's wondrous earthmantling robe. The noosphere is "a membrane . . . a new layer, the 'thinking layer . . . spread over and above the world of plants and animals (181-182), a single thinking envelope (251) that has begun to close in upon itself -- and to encircle the earth (205). The point for us to remember is that Teilhard is, while theorizing, nevertheless speaking in phenomenological, not figurative or metaphysical terms. I would ask us to perceive Hopkins and Arnold in the same light, for the correspondence of imagery among Arnold, Hopkins, and Teilhard should give us pause not merely if we believe in the coincidence of well-turned metaphors but more, and lastly best, if we believe in a knowable truth, founded upon phenomenological realities, that is ultimately accessible to humanity, and that is humanity's to access.While it may seem by now to be a point that needs no champion, what I have been arguing throughout is that we reach that truth through poetry as well as through philosophy, science, and religion - if such a truth exists. That if is an unbending one, I know, but I have not been about trying to prove that there is or is not a correspondent truth in the universe, only that, if there is one, poetry is as revelatory of it as any other species of human knowing or, in a word, science.Certainly Gerard Manley Hopkins did imagine that he was touching upon permanent and universal truths in his poetry. For thought at its extreme expression is not the gray tedium of consecutive ideas but the sudden, surprising insight that cuts across categories and, for a solitary moment, bewilders logic. Hopkins still perceives the beauty to be found in truth, the truth to be found in beauty, and he addresses the mystery which then unfolds with concise images drawn not from a personal but from a communal store, thus enlarging the authority with which he dispenses his insights. Still, he is not a Catholic apologist but a truth?seeker who knows the truth wherever and whenever he finds it. And then he is a truth-teller. As such, he speaks with the clairvoyance of the uncluttered intellect against the day when our sense of mystery again becomes a source of wonder rather than of shame, bewilderment, argument, or despair.
Arnold, Matthew Karl R. Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Phenomenon of Man. Trans. Bernard Wall. New York: Harper and Row Torchlight Books, 1959.
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