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Adonais: Its Composition And Bibliography.

For nearly two months after the death of Keats, 23 February, 1821, Shelley appears to have remained in ignorance of the event: he knew it on or before 19 April. The precise date when he began his Elegy does not seem to be recorded: one may suppose it to have been in the latter half of May. On 5 June he wrote to Mr. and Mrs. Gisborne: 'I have been engaged these last days in composing a poem on the death of Keats, which will shortly be finished; and I anticipate the pleasure of reading it to you, as some of the very few persons who will be interested in it and understand it. It is a highly wrought piece of art, and perhaps better, in point of composition, than anything I have written.'

A letter to Mr. Ollier followed immediately afterwards.


'Pisa, June 8th, 1821,

'You may announce for publication a poem entitled Adonais. It is a lament on the death of poor Keats, with some interspersed stabs on the assassins of his peace and of his fame; and will be preceded by a criticism on Hyperion, asserting the due claims which that fragment gives him to the rank which I have assigned him. My poem is finished, and consists of about forty Spenser stanzas [fifty-five as published]. I shall send it to you, either printed at Pisa, or transcribed in such a manner as it shall be difficult for the reviser to leave such errors as assist the obscurity of the Prometheus. But in case I send it printed, it will be merely that mistakes may be avoided. I shall only have a few copies struck off in the cheapest manner. If you have interest enough in the subject, I could wish that you enquired of some of the friends and relations of Keats respecting the circumstances of his death, and could transmit me any information you may be able to collect; and especially as [to] the degree in which (as I am assured) the brutal attack in the Quarterly Review excited the disease by which he perished.'


The criticism which Shelley intended to write on Hyperion remained, to all appearance, unwritten. It will be seen, from the letter of Shelley to Mr. Severn cited further on (p. 34), that, from the notion of writing a criticism on Hyperion to precede Adonais, his intention developed into the project of writing a criticism and biography of Keats in general, to precede a volume of his entire works; but that, before the close of November, the whole scheme was given up, on the ground that it would produce no impression on an unregardful public.

In another letter to Ollier, 11 June, the poet says: 'Adonais is finished, and you will soon receive it. It is little adapted for popularity, but is perhaps the least imperfect of my compositions.'

Shelley on 16 June caused his Elegy to be printed in Pisa, 'with the types of Didot': a small quarto, and a handsome one (notwithstanding his project of cheapness); the introductory matter filling five pages, and the poem itself going on from p. 7 to p. 25. It appeared in blue paper wrappers, with a woodcut of a basket of flowers within an ornamental border. Its price was three and sixpence: of late years £40 has been given for it—perhaps more. Up to 13 July only one copy had reached the author's hands: this he then sent on to the Gisbornes, at Leghorn. Some copies of the Pisa edition were afterwards put into circulation in London: there was no separate English edition. The Gisbornes having acknowledged the Elegy with expressions of admiration, the poet replied as follows:


'Bagni [di Pisa], July 19.

'MY DEAREST FRIENDS,

'I am fully repaid for the painful emotions from which some verses of my poem sprung by your sympathy and approbation; which is all the reward I expect, and as much as I desire. It is not for me to judge whether, in the high praise your feelings assign me, you are right or wrong. The poet and the man are two different natures: though they exist together, they may be unconscious of each other, and incapable of deciding on each other's powers and efforts by any reflex act. The decision of the cause whether or not I am a poet is removed from the present time to the hour when our posterity shall assemble: but the court is a very severe one, and I fear that the verdict will be "Guilty—death."'


A letter to Mr. Ollier was probably a little later. It says: 'I send you a sketch for a frontispiece to the poem Adonais. Pray let it be put into the engraver's hands immediately, as the poem is already on its way to you, and I should wish it to be ready for its arrival. The poem is beautifully printed, and—what is of more consequence—correctly: indeed, it was to obtain this last point that I sent it to the press at Pisa. In a few days you will receive the bill of lading.' Nothing is known as to the sketch which Shelley thus sent. It cannot, I presume, have been his own production, nor yet Severn's: possibly it was supplied by Lieutenant Williams, who had some aptitude as an amateur artist.

I add some of the poet's other expressions regarding Adonais, which he evidently regarded with more complacency than any of his previous works—at any rate, as a piece of execution. Hitherto his favourite had been Prometheus Unbound: I am fain to suppose that that great effort did not now hold a second place in his affections, though he may have considered that the Adonais, as being a less arduous feat, came nearer to reaching its goal. (To Peacock, August, 1821.) 'I have sent you by the Gisbornes a copy of the Elegy on Keats. The subject, I know, will not please you; but the composition of the poetry, and the taste in which it is written, I do not think bad.' (To Hunt, 26 August.) 'Before this you will have seen Adonais. Lord Byron—I suppose from modesty on account of his being mentioned in it—did not say a word of Adonais, though he was loud in his praise of Prometheus, and (what you will not agree with him in) censure of The Cenci.' (To Horace Smith, 14 September,) 'I am glad you like Adonais, and particularly that you do not think it metaphysical, which I was afraid it was. I was resolved to pay some tribute of sympathy to the unhonoured dead; but I wrote, as usual, with a total ignorance of the effect that I should produce.' (To Ollier, 25 September.) 'The Adonais, in spite of its mysticism, is the least imperfect of my compositions; and, as the image of my regret and honour for poor Keats, I wish it to be so. I shall write to you probably by next post on the subject of that poem; and should have sent the promised criticism for the second edition, had I not mislaid, and in vain sought for, the volume that contains Hyperion.' (To Ollier, 14 November.) 'I am especially curious to hear the fate of Adonais. I confess I should be surprised if that poem were born to an immortality of oblivion.' (To Ollier, 11 January, 1822.) 'I was also more than commonly interested in the success of Adonais. I do not mean the sale, but the effect produced; and I should have [been] glad to have received some communication from you respecting it. I do not know even whether it has been published, and still less whether it has been republished with the alterations I sent.' As to the alterations sent nothing definite is known, but some details bearing on this point will be found in our Notes, p. 105, &c. (To Gisborne, 10 April) 'I know what to think of Adonais, but what to think of those who confound it with the many bad poems of the day I know not.' This expression seems to indicate that Mr. Gisborne had sent Shelley some of the current criticisms—there were probably but few in all—upon Adonais: to this matter I shall recur further on. (To Gisborne, 18 June.) 'The Adonais I wished to have had a fair chance, both because it is a favourite with me, and on account of the memory of Keats—who was a poet of great genius, let the classic party say what it will.'

Earlier than the latest of these extracts Shelley had sent to Mr. Severn a copy of Adonais, along with a letter which I append.


'Pisa, Nov. 29th, 1821.

'DEAR SIR,

'I send you the Elegy on poor Keats, and I wish it were better worth your acceptance. You will see, by the preface, that it was written before I could obtain any particular account of his last moments. All that I still know was communicated to me by a friend who had derived his information from Colonel Finch, I have ventured [in the Preface] to express as I felt the respect and admiration which your conduct towards him demands.

'In spite of his transcendent genius, Keats never was, nor ever will be, a popular poet; and the total neglect and obscurity in which the astonishing remains of his mind still lie was hardly to be dissipated by a writer who, however he may differ from Keats in more important qualities, at least resembles him in that accidental one, a want of popularity.

'I have little hope therefore that the poem I send you will excite any attention, nor do I feel assured that a critical notice of his writings would find a single reader. But for these considerations, it had been my intention to have collected the remnants of his compositions, and to have published them with a Life and criticism. Has he left any poems or writings of whatsoever kind, and in whose possession are they? Perhaps you would oblige me by information on this point.

'Many thanks for the picture you promise me [presumably a portrait of Keats, but Shelley does not seem ever to have received one from Severn]: I shall consider it among the most sacred relics of the past. For my part, I little expected, when I last saw Keats at my friend Leigh Hunt's, that I should survive him.

'Should you ever pass through Pisa, I hope to have the pleasure of seeing you, and of cultivating an acquaintance into something pleasant, begun under such melancholy auspices.

'Accept, my dear Sir, the assurance of my highest esteem, and believe me

'Your most sincere and faithful servant,

'PERCY B. SHELLEY.

'Do you know Leigh Hunt? I expect him and his family here every day.'


It may have been observed that Shelley, whenever he speaks of critical depreciation of Keats, refers only to one periodical, the Quarterly Review: probably he did not distinctly know of any other: but the fact is that Blackwood's Magazine was worse than the Quarterly. The latter was sneering and supercilious: Blackwood was vulgarly taunting and insulting, and seems to have provoked Keats the more of the two, though perhaps he considered the attack in the Quarterly to be more detrimental to his literary standing. The Quarterly notice is of so much import in the life and death of Keats, and in the genesis of Adonais, that I shall give it, practically in extenso, before closing this section of my work: with Blackwood I can deal at once. A series of articles On the Cockney School of Poetry began in this magazine in October, 1817, being directed mainly and very venomously against Leigh Hunt. No. 4 of the series appeared in August, 1818, falling foul of Keats. It is difficult to say whether the priority in abusing Keats should of right be assigned to Blackwood or to the Quarterly: the critique in the latter review belongs to the number for April, 1818, but this number was not actually issued until September. The writer of the Blackwood papers signed himself Z. Z. is affirmed to have been Lockhart, the son-in-law of Sir Walter Scott, and afterwards editor of the Quarterly Review: more especially the article upon Keats is attributed to Lockhart. A different account, as to the series in general, is that the author was John Wilson (Christopher North), revised by Mr. William Blackwood. But Z. resisted more than one vigorous challenge to unmask, and some doubt as to his identity may still remain. Here are some specimens of the amenity with which Keats was treated in Blackwood's Magazine:—

'His friends, we understand, destined him to the career of medicine, and he was bound apprentice some years ago to a worthy apothecary in town.... The frenzy of the Poems [Keats's first volume, 1817] was bad enough in its way; but it did not alarm us half so seriously as the calm, settled, imperturbable, drivelling idiocy of Endymion.... We hope however that, in so young a person and with a constitution originally so good, even now the disease is not utterly incurable.... Mr. Hunt is a small poet, but a clever man; Mr. Keats is a still smaller poet, and he is only a boy of pretty abilities which he has done everything in his power to spoil.... It is a better and wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet: so back to the shop, Mr. John, back to "plaster, pills, and ointment-boxes," &c. But for Heaven's sake, young Sangrado, be a little more sparing of extenuatives and soporifics in your practice than you have been in your poetry.'

Even the death of Keats, in 1821, did not abate the rancour of Blackwood's Magazine. Witness the following extracts. (1823) 'Keats had been dished—utterly demolished and dished—by Blackwood long before Mr. Gifford's scribes mentioned his name.... But let us hear no more of Johnny Keats. It is really too disgusting to have him and his poems recalled in this manner after all the world thought they had got rid of the concern.' (1824) 'Mr. Shelley died, it seems, with a volume of Mr. Keats's poetry "grasped with one hand in his bosom"—rather an awkward posture, as you will be convinced if you try it. But what a rash man Shelley was to put to sea in a frail boat with Jack's poetry on board!... Down went the boat with a "swirl"! I lay a wager that it righted soon after ejecting Jack.'... (1826) 'Keats was a Cockney, and Cockneys claimed him for their own. Never was there a young man so encrusted with conceit.'

If this is the tone adopted by Blackwood's Magazine in relation to Keats living and dead, one need not be surprised to find that the verdict of the same review upon the poem of Adonais, then newly published, ran to the following effect:—

'Locke says the most resolute liar cannot lie more than once in every three sentences. Folly is more engrossing; for we could prove from the present Elegy that it is possible to write two sentences of pure nonsense out of three. A more faithful calculation would bring us to ninety-nine out of every hundred; or—as the present consists of only fifty-five stanzas—leaving about five readable lines in the entire.... A Mr. Keats, who had left a decent calling for the melancholy trade of Cockney poetry, has lately died of a consumption, after having written two or three little books of verses much neglected by the public.... The New School, however, will have it that he was slaughtered by a criticism of the Quarterly Review: "O flesh, how art thou fishified!" There is even an aggravation in this cruelty of the Review—for it had taken three or four years to slay its victim, the deadly blow having been inflicted at least as long since. [This is not correct: the Quarterly critique, having appeared in September, 1818, preceded the death of Keats by two years and five months].... The fact is, the Quarterly, finding before it a work at once silly and presumptuous, full of the servile slang that Cockaigne dictates to its servitors, and the vulgar indecorums which that Grub Street Empire rejoiceth to applaud, told the truth of the volume, and recommended a change of manners and of masters to the scribbler. Keats wrote on; but he wrote indecently, probably in the indulgence of his social propensities.'

The virulence with which Shelley, as author of Adonais, was assailed by Blackwood's Magazine, is the more remarkable, and the more symptomatic of partizanship against Keats and any of his upholders, as this review had in previous instances been exceptionally civil to Shelley, though of course with some serious offsets. The notices of Alastor, Rosalind and Helen, and Prometheus Unbound—more especially the first—in the years 1819 and 1820, would be found to bear out this statement.

From the dates already cited, it may be assumed that the Pisan edition of Adonais was in London in the hands of Mr. Ollier towards the middle of August, 1821, purchasable by whoever might be minded to buy it. Very soon afterwards it was reprinted in the Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review, published by Limbird in the Strand—1 December, 1821: a rather singular, not to say piratical, proceeding. An editorial note was worded thus: 'Through the kindness of a friend, we have been favoured with the latest production of a gentleman of no ordinary genius, Mr. Bysshe Shelley. It is an elegy on the death of a youthful poet of considerable promise, Mr. Keats, and was printed at Pisa. As the copy now before us is perhaps [surely not] the only one that has reached England, and the subject is one that will excite much interest, we shall print the whole of it.' This promise was not literally fulfilled, for stanzas 19 to 24 were omitted, not apparently with any special object.

After the publication in London of the Pisan edition of Adonais, the poem remained unreprinted until 1829. It was then issued at Cambridge, at the instance of Lord Houghton (Mr. Richard Monckton Milnes) and Mr. Arthur Hallam, the latter having brought from Italy a copy of the original pamphlet. The Cambridge edition, an octavo in paper wrappers, is now still scarcer than the Pisan one. The only other separate edition of Adonais was that of Mr. Buxton Forman, 1876, corresponding substantially with the form which the poem assumes in the Complete Works of Shelley, as produced by the same editor. It need hardly be said that Adonais was included in Mrs. Shelley's editions of her husband's Poems, and in all other editions of any fulness: it has also appeared in most of the volumes of Selections.

As early as 1830 there was an Italian translation of this Elegy. It is named Adone, nella morte di Giovanni Keats, Elegia di Percy Bishe Shelley, tradotta da L. A. Damaso Pareto. Genova, dalla Tifografia Pellas, 1830. In this small quarto thirty pages are occupied by a notice of the life and poetry of Shelley.

I shall not here enter upon a consideration of the cancelled passages of Adonais: they will appear more appositely further on (see pp. 92-94, &c.). I therefore conclude the present section by quoting the Quarterly Review article upon Endymion—omitting only a few sentences which do not refer directly to Keats, but mostly to Leigh Hunt:—

'Reviewers have been sometimes accused of not reading the works which they affected to criticise. On the present occasion we shall anticipate the author's complaint, and honestly confess that we have not read his work. Not that we have been wanting in our duty; far from it; indeed, we have made efforts, almost as superhuman as the story itself appears to be, to get through it: but, with the fullest stretch of our perseverance, we are forced to confess that we have not been able to struggle beyond the first of the four books of which this Poetic Romance consists. We should extremely lament this want of energy, or whatever it may be, on our parts, were it not for one consolation—namely, that we are no better acquainted with the meaning of the book through which we have so painfully toiled than we are with that of the three which we have not looked into.

'It is not that Mr. Keats (if that be his real name, for we almost doubt that any man in his senses would put his real name to such a rhapsody)—it is not, we say, that the author has not powers of language, rays of fancy, and gleams of genius. He has all these: but he is unhappily a disciple of the new school of what has been somewhere called "Cockney Poetry," which may be defined to consist of the most incongruous ideas in the most uncouth language.

'Of this school Mr. Leigh Hunt, as we observed in a former number, aspires to be the hierophant.... This author is a copyist of Mr. Hunt, but he is more unintelligible, almost as rugged, twice as diffuse, and ten times more tiresome and absurd, than his prototype, who, though he impudently presumed to seat himself in the chair of criticism, and to measure his own poetry by his own standard, yet generally had a meaning. But Mr. Keats had advanced no dogmas which he was bound to support by examples. His nonsense, therefore, is quite gratuitous; he writes it for its own sake, and, being bitten by Mr. Leigh Hunt's insane criticism, more than rivals the insanity of his poetry.

'Mr. Keats's preface hints that his poem was produced under peculiar circumstances. "Knowing within myself." he says, "the manner in which this poem has been produced, it is not without a feeling of regret that I make it public. What manner I mean will be quite clear to the reader, who must soon perceive great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt rather than a deed accomplished." We humbly beg his pardon, but this does not appear to us to be "quite so clear"; we really do not know what he means. But the next passage is more intelligible. "The two first books, and indeed the two last, I feel sensible, are not of such completion as to warrant their passing the press." Thus "the two first books" are, even in his own judgment, unfit to appear, and "the two last" are, it seems, in the same condition; and, as two and two make four, and as that is the whole number of books, we have a clear, and we believe a very just, estimate of the entire work.

'Mr. Keats, however, deprecates criticism on this "immature and feverish work" in terms which are themselves sufficiently feverish; and we confess that we should have abstained from inflicting upon him any of the tortures of the "fierce hell" of criticism which terrify his imagination if he had not begged to be spared in order that he might write more; if we had not observed in him a certain degree of talent which deserves to be put in the right way, or which at least ought to be warned of the wrong; and if finally he had not told us that he is of an age and temper which imperiously require mental discipline.

'Of the story we have been able to make out but little. It seems to be mythological, and probably relates to the loves of Diana and Endymion; but of this, as the scope of the work has altogether escaped us, we cannot speak with any degree of certainty, and must therefore content ourselves with giving some instances of its diction and versification. And here again we are perplexed and puzzled. At first it appeared to us that Mr. Keats had been amusing himself and wearying his readers with an immeasurable game at bouts rimés; but, if we recollect rightly, it is an indispensable condition at this play that the rhymes, when filled up, shall have a meaning; and our author, as we have already hinted, has no meaning. He seems to us to write a line at random, and then he follows, not the thought excited by this line, but that suggested by the rhyme with which it concludes. There is hardly a complete couplet enclosing a complete idea in the whole book. He wanders from one subject to another, from the association, not of ideas, but of sounds; and the work is composed of hemistichs which, it is quite evident, have forced themselves upon the author by the mere force of the catchwords on which they turn.

'We shall select, not as the most striking instance, but as that least liable to suspicion, a passage from the opening of the poem;—

"Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils,
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
'Gainst the hot season; the mid-forest brake
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms;
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead," &c.

Here it is clear that the word, and not the idea, moon, produces the simple sheep and their shady boon, and that "the dooms of the mighty dead" would never have intruded themselves but for the "fair musk-rose blooms."

'Again:—

"For 'twas the morn. Apollo's upward fire
Made every eastern cloud a silvery pyre
Of brightness so unsullied that therein
A melancholy spirit well might win
Oblivion, and melt out his essence fine
Into the winds. Rain-scented eglantine
Gave temperate sweets to that well-wooing sun;
The lark was lost in him; cold springs had run
To warm their chilliest bubbles in the grass;
Man's voice was on the mountains; and the mass
Of Nature's lives and wonders pulsed tenfold
To feel this sunrise and its glories old."

Here Apollo's fire produces a pyre—a silvery pyre—of clouds, wherein a spirit might win oblivion, and melt his essence fine; and scented eglantine gives sweets to the sun, and cold springs had run into the grass; and then the pulse of the mass pulsed tenfold to feel the glories old of the new-born day, &c.

'One example more:—

"Be still the unimaginable lodge
For solitary thinkings, such as dodge
Conception to the very bourne of heaven,
Then leave the naked brain; be still the leaven
That spreading in this dull and clodded earth,
Gives it a touch ethereal—a new birth."

Lodge, dodge—heaven, leaven—earth, birth—such, in six words, is the sum and substance of six lines.

'We come now to the author's taste in versification. He cannot indeed write a sentence, but perhaps he may be able to spin a line. Let us see. The following are specimens of his prosodial notions of our English heroic metre:—

"Dear as the temple's self, so does the moon,
The passion poesy, glories infinite.

"So plenteously all weed-hidden roots.

"Of some strange history, potent to send.

"Before the deep intoxication.

"Her scarf into a fluttering pavilion.

"The stubborn canvas for my voyage prepared.

"Endymion, the cave is secreter
Than the isle of Delos. Echo hence shall stir
No sighs but sigh-warm kisses, or light noise
Of thy combing hand, the while it travelling cloys
And trembles through my labyrinthine hair."

'By this time our readers must be pretty well satisfied as to the meaning of his sentences and the structure of his lines. We now present them with some of the new words with which, in imitation of Mr. Leigh Hunt, he adorns our language.

'We are told that turtles passion their voices; that an arbour was nested, and a lady's locks gordianed up; and, to supply the place of the nouns thus verbalized, Mr. Keats, with great fecundity, spawns new ones, such as men-slugs and human serpentry, the honey-feel of bliss, wives prepare needments, and so forth.

'Then he has formed new verbs by the process of cutting off their natural tails, the adverbs, and affixing them to their foreheads. Thus the wine out-sparkled, the multitude up-followed, and night up-took: the wind up-blows, and the hours are down-sunken. But, if he sinks some adverbs in the verbs, he compensates the language with adverbs and adjectives which he separates from the parent stock. Thus a lady whispers pantingly and close, makes hushing signs, and steers her skiff into a ripply cove, a shower falls refreshfully, and a vulture has a spreaded tail.

'But enough of Mr. Leigh Hunt and his simple neophyte. If any one should be bold enough to purchase this Poetic Romance, and so much more patient than ourselves as to get beyond the first book, and so much more fortunate as to find a meaning, we entreat him to make us acquainted with his success. We shall then return to the task which we now abandon in despair, and endeavour to make all due amends to Mr. Keats and to our readers.'


This criticism is not, I think, exactly what Shelley called it in the Preface to Adonais—'savage:' it is less savage than contemptuous, and is far indeed from competing with the abuse which was from time to time, and in various reviews, poured forth upon Shelley himself. It cannot be denied that some of the blemishes which it points out in Endymion are real blemishes, and very serious ones. The grounds on which one can fairly object to the criticism are that its tone is purposely ill-natured; its recognition of merits scanty out of all proportion to its censure of defects; and its spirit that of prepense disparagement founded not so much on the poetical errors of Keats as on the fact that he was a friend of Leigh Hunt, the literary and also the political antagonist of the Quarterly Review. The editor, Mr. Gifford, seems always to have been regarded as the author of this criticism—I presume, correctly so.

That Keats was a friend of Leigh Hunt in the earlier period of his own poetical career is a fact; but not long after the appearance of the Quarterly Review article he conceived a good deal of dislike and even animosity against this literary ally. Possibly the taunts of the Quarterly Review, and the alienation of Keats from Hunt, had some connexion as cause and effect. In a letter from John Keats to his brother George and his sister-in-law occurs the following passage, dated towards the end of 1818: 'Hunt has asked me to meet Tom Moore some day—so you shall hear of him. The night we went to Novello's there was a complete set-to of Mozart and punning. I was so completely tired of it that, if I were to follow my own inclinations, I should never meet any one of that set again; not even Hunt, who is certainly a pleasant fellow in the main, when you are with him—but in reality he is vain, egotistical, and disgusting in matters of taste, and in morals. He understands many a beautiful thing; but then, instead of giving other minds credit for the same degree of perception as he himself professes, he begins an explanation in such a curious manner that our taste and self-love are offended continually. Hunt does one harm by making fine things petty, and beautiful things hateful. Through him I am indifferent to Mozart, I care not for white busts; and many a glorious thing, when associated with him, becomes a nothing. This distorts one's mind—makes one's thoughts bizarre—perplexes one in the standard of Beauty.'

For the text of Adonais in the present edition I naturally have recourse to the original Pisan edition, but without neglecting such alterations as have been properly introduced into later issues; these will be fully indicated and accounted for in my Notes. In the minor matters of punctuation, &c., I do not consider myself bound to reproduce the first or any other edition, but I follow the plan which appears to myself most reasonable and correct; any point worthy of discussion in these details will also receive attention in the Notes.

Contributed by Rossetti, William Michael

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