National Writing Project

The English Lyric, Foot by Foot

By: Richard Gillin
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 1
Date: Winter 2002

When an English professor offers a summer course in North Yorkshire, England, it is an opportunity to share with his students the place of "wonder, beauty, and vibrant literary associations" that he had visited years earlier. For his students, however, it is a chance to explore the world of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the Brontës—an environment that they had previously experienced only in literature—and one that profoundly affects their writing and thinking thereafter.

 

Link to the Washington College Summer Program in English Literature at Kiplin Hall website, which includes a virtual guide of the locations visited as well as photos from the 2000 and 2001 tours, and student journals.

 

Convincing undergraduates to read and enjoy poetry is a perennial, and sometimes daunting, objective for English teachers. Having students understand the unique kind of thinking that poetry opens becomes a passionate pursuit. With students being drawn by the powerful lure of our popular culture, and distracted and intrigued by the ubiquitous electronic and technological arts, getting them to enter that special stillness associated with poetic insight requires some pedagogical agility.

Where is the place of poetry, especially English poetry of the distant past, in relation to the exciting and innovative arts of our moment? The answer lies in our humanity. No matter how far our technology goes, we still have to confront our humanness. To understand our humanness, it is essential to see where we have been; what we have felt and thought. Poetry provides us with a rich record of all forms of human experience. But how to compete with our tendency to look at ourselves in our contemporary world, rich as it is with fascinating details, as opposed to confronting the language of the past with its demanding syntax and diction, not to mention its references to events, people, and places not familiar to us?

A means to take on—although by no means solve—part of this question presented itself to me in the late fall of 1997, and the experiment proved to be very successful. Through Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, where I am a professor of English, I was asked if I would be willing to develop a summer program for our students at a place called Kiplin Hall in North Yorkshire, England. Kiplin Hall, built in 1620, was the ancestral home of the Calvert family, a very powerful Yorkshire family and the founding family of Maryland in colonial times. Since I had studied in England and spent a sabbatical at Oxford, I felt confident about traveling with students to England, but I wanted to do more than just visit historic sites, or lecture about important literary works and writers.

I began outlining a course of study that would connect literature and places. By my initial plan, which combined a good deal of hiking with a wide range of reading and writing, I imagined using Wuthering Heights as one of the readings, for example. The book seemed a natural since many of the places in the novel are based on buildings that are still standing. As I thought more about my plan, however, I was dissatisfied. While seeing a number of places connected with Wuthering Heights might be interesting, it would make me something of a tour guide and the students more or less passive observers. Throughout the winter months, I worked through a number of texts that could be used in conjunction with the landscapes found in the Yorkshire Moors and the Yorkshire Dales, but the feeling that something vital was missing nagged at me. While reading some of Emily Brontë's poetry, I began to get a sense of a new direction. Instead of using Wuthering Heights, I thought, I would use Brontë's somewhat lesser-known poetry. And rather than merely visiting the places associated with Emily Brontë's work, I thought that it would be much more valuable to provide experiences, as much as possible, like the ones she wrote about in her poems. To this new end, I mapped out a walk thorough the Haworth Moors, as well as the North Yorkshire Moors, and I looked through anthologies and collections of poems to see if I could connect particular landscapes with particular poets. My thought was not so much finding exact locations for specific poems, but rather in developing experiences that would approximate those found in the poems.

By the end of the winter, I decided to offer a course on the English lyric. The core of my original plan to develop experiences that would connect with literature came into focus as I chose to use a range of lyric poetry from the medieval period to the present. No longer would I limit myself to Yorkshire writers; instead I would mine the abundance of English lyricism. As spring arrived, I had outlined a list of poems that we would study. Among them were a good number of William Wordsworth's poems since the Lake District, where Wordsworth spent much of his life, was a short drive from Kiplin Hall.

When the announcement was made about the proposed course, students had a mixed reaction: while they were interested because of the Maryland-Kiplin Hall connection, they were doubtful about studying the English lyric. But when I assured them that the course would be different from whatever past experiences they had had with poetry, our group—limited to twelve by the accommodations at Kiplin—quickly formed. The students ranged from freshmen to rising seniors, and only three were potential English majors. I emphasized that they would need a good pair of hiking boots and warm, rainproof outerwear. When I further suggested that they should get themselves in shape by walking a few miles a day for the rest of the spring term, they looked doubtful but remained committed to the program.

We arrived in England in mid-June, blessed by the first warm, clear day in a month, and we took the opportunity to walk out into the hills south of Richmond. After walking an hour or so, we came to a pasture high on the leeward side of a hill, overlooking an expanse of richly green farmland. It was here that we had the first of our classes, with the palpable beauty of the day underscoring the medieval lyrics we read. The special joy of a bright June day and the sound of a cuckoo in a nearby woods eliminated the time distance between the writer of "Sumer is ycomen in" and twelve students sitting in the grass on that Sunday afternoon. In our discussion, the students observed how the lyric as a form seemed to concern itself with the deeply personal and sensual parts of life, while at other times it treated the sacred and the unknowable. This perceptive observation would form the basis of several discussions we would have later in the course, as we investigated how several poets followed out the sophisticated implications of this sort of dual focus.

During the weeks that followed, I w ove classes into each day's journey or expedition. We visited the Brontë parsonage in Haworth, for example, and after walking through the house and around the village, we set off across the Haworth Moors as the Brontës had in the nineteenth century. The grayness of the sky was intensified by the remarkably cold wind, which blew bursts of rain at us sideways. An hour's wandering brought us to a shallow depression in the moor that allowed us to sit out of the wind. There, we took turns reading selected poems of Emily Brontë, which evolved into a discussion about the uniqueness of the moorland and Brontë's response to it. The forces of nature were clearly apparent to us, and the haunting quality of Emily Brontë's poems was underscored by the feel of the place. Our discussion was free and open; everyone had something to say in spite of the cold and damp and the mud that had splashed up high on our clothes. The full weight of the impression that the elements made on the students was not apparent until later in our trip when they wrote about this day. A host of specific nuances showed up in their recollections, and their comments about Brontë were rich in appreciation of the wildness of the moors as well as the threatening quality of the place.

The Lake District was an hour-and-a-half drive from our home base at Kiplin Hall, and tours of William Wordsworth's houses at Rydal and Grasmere were "musts." Carrying packs filled with lunches and poetry, we drifted through Rydal Hall absorbing the rich domestic environment of the Wordsworths and then set out to walk to Dove Cottage via Nab Scar, a mountain just above Rydal Hall. The climb up Nab Scar proved daunting since the ascent is literally breathtaking and at times nearly vertical. At the summit, we sat to have lunch and a reading and discussion of some of Wordsworth's poems. During our talk, one student read an entry from a journal by Dorothy Wordsworth (William's sister) in which she talks about Nab Scar. Instantly, everyone wanted to read more of Dorothy's entries, and the students seemed genuinely fascinated that what she described was what we were experiencing. The landscape had not changed in any perceptible way; the trails and roads were the same; even the sheep and the flowers echoed from the past. Selections from The Prelude came alive for the students as they imagined Wordsworth climbing the very same paths with an eye on the island in the lake at Grasmere. On the way to Grasmere, we passed the pool memorialized by Wordsworth in "Resolution and Independence" where he and Dorothy met a leech gatherer. By the time we arrived at Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum, the students felt a kinship with Wordsworth, having just literally struggled in his footsteps, and they were eager to read more of his poetry.

For twenty-five years, I have taught the English Romantic poets in various courses, but this time there was a resonance that was substantially different. It was not that students in the past did not appreciate and understand the poetry; rather, it was the texture of understanding that was different. These twelve students directly experienced the feel of the air, wind, and sun. They strained against the mountain, became breathless, and discovered a deep thirst. Through their imaginations, they could place themselves back in time and sense the demands of life in this place. They felt the visual grandeur of the natural setting and could understand the terror of being isolated by its remoteness.

Our day in the lakes stimulated such interest that the students began to read more deeply in Wordsworth's poetry and more widely in Dorothy's Grasmere journals. We ended up making two more trips to other mountains in pursuit of more experience. Helvellyn, which is one of the highest mountains in England, was Wordsworth's favorite, and he continued to climb it until he was seventy-five years of age. Interest in this favorite of Wordsworth led us to it, and the day that we climbed it proved to be most memorable. The day was wet and cold, and a sustained wind cut into the climb partway up. The summit was wrapped in mist and clouds. The great challenge was Striding Edge. As the name suggests, the path cuts along the edge of the mountain with a drop-off of about four thousand feet on one side. The ascent from woods, through pastureland, and into an elemental landscape of rocks, becks, and tarns requires a sustained physical effort.

Despite the exhaustion brought on by the difficult terrain, the students were fascinated that Wordsworth and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge walked these same paths, frequently with Coleridge talking and Wordsworth composing poems. Wherever the students looked as they struggled up Helvellyn, they found remarkable sights. Later, despite how physically depleting the day had been, we found ourselves talking about Wordsworth well into the evening, and several students thumbed through their poetry books in search of more poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge.

The exhilaration of getting out into the landscape intensified as the weeks flew by, and students who just a term earlier would not have even thought of taking a book of poems with them were reading poems to each other and talking about the connections they could make between the text and the natural environment. We made other hikes in the Yorkshire Dales and up Skiddaw in the lakes and each excursion became much more than a day out. As required, the students kept journals, and the entries treating our walks, rambles, and hikes reflected a deepened sense of detail and wonder. Often quotes from various lyric poems illustrated or supported a particular observation or insight. Through poetry and the physical demands of our journeys, the students learned how to know themselves and the physical environment differently. This sort of intimate knowledge is at the core of lyric poetry, and the link between the suggestive power of poetry and the landscapes we consumed was firmly estab-lished by a physical and imaginative effort.

What began as an outstanding experience in the summer of 1998 has become an ongoing program. On purpose, we have kept the group to twelve students, and we have varied the works read and the sites visited. Even so, the idea of an experience that offers an almost total immersion into poetry, history, and writing has generated much interest on campus, and in each succeeding year, the number of students applying to participate in the Kiplin Hall Program has increased. Especially notable is the role of writing in that interest. Before we even begin our journey, and before I outline what I will be expecting from them academically, students tell me how they can't wait to begin their journal entries. Through word of mouth from past participants and by an actual sharing of journals from past years, the new students get a fair idea of what they will be doing. The widespread sharing of journals was an unexpected consequence and surprised me the most after our first trip. Because of the close bonding that occurs, the students felt very comfortable about sharing their writing, and on many occasions, students wrote responses to other students' entries.

Since I wanted the students participating in the summer program of 2000 to reflect on their unique perspective at a specific historical moment, I suggested to them particular categories to treat in their entries. They were asked to write descriptive pieces about their impressions of Kiplin Hall and the surroundings, analytic comments about the poetry we would be studying, and narrative sequences about our daily experiences as we hiked through the various landscapes of Northern England. I especially wanted them to reflect on what they were experiencing as they incorporated descriptive, analytic, and narrative elements into their entries. My purpose was to have them connect the particularities of the moment with larger historical, personal, and cultural perspectives. I asked them to try to connect what they experienced physically with an emotion or an idea that suggested itself from the physical surroundings.

The journal entries were written whenever the students had time to write. They faithfully kept the journals with them, writing as the opportunity presented itself. To my amazement and joy, writing sessions would take place well into the evening, even after a long day of traveling and hiking. Throughout the day, there was a constant low-keyed chatter about specific details of a poem or a place we had treated or visited, and the experiences we all had were sharpened by our collective attention to specific elements we discovered on our treks. The size of each journal precludes their reproduction here, and, in fairness, the full impact of each student's journal can only be understood when read in its totality. However, by looking at some selected entries, I believe that a sense of the range and depth of the full journals can be seen. More importantly, I think that the value of this approach to writing becomes evident in the richness of the observations recorded as well as in the thinking made evident.

The students participating in the Kiplin Hall Program 2000 were mostly freshmen going into their sophomore year, though there were juniors as well, and they represented a good range of majors. In response to my request for descriptive entries that would connect past and present, I received the following:

Right now I am sitting outside on the path that encircles the pond directly behind Kiplin Hall. It is amazing how fast the sun is setting, and how fast the week has gone. . . .The past week has been amazing and I am sad to see it go. I think it is very important to what I am doing now.

We are studying Wordsworth and this is what he did: he took in every square inch of landscape around him inside and out. He held it in his hand, mixed in his thought and emotion and let a concoction of moving landscape fall through his pen. So now it is my turn. I'm no Wordsworth, but I know what he's talking about. This country is so old that I think the elements of nature have learned to perfect themselves and compliment each other to create a world that is constantly changing and always beautiful.—Katie W.

In seeing Fountains Abbey today I was struck with the realization that I am not just in a different country here, but in a seemingly different world. I am beginning to notice more and more just how young the United States is. . . . Possibly the most important part of the abbey was the fact that what we had come so many miles to see was once many people's reality.—Katie F.

Today was an amazing experience for me in many ways. I was fascinated by everything in Rydal Mount. I was particularly intrigued by Wordsworth's letters to Coleridge and to his wife Mary. To see his handwritten letters and poetry made him more three dimensional somehow. I guess when you read page after page of text it becomes pretty easy to forget that a person actually wrote those words and toiled over them.—Rebecca D.

In regard to a visit to York Minster, a student noted a rush of sense impressions that came to her:

As I walked into York Minster the voices from the choir enveloped me. I looked up and there was this magnificent stained glass of the disciples. I was in awe. The beauty of the building, its architecture, and its stained glass plus its religious significance made it a heavenly place. Heavenly in sight, sound, and spirit. It is not everyday you find something so spiritually fulfilling. I am not even Episcopalian but the feeling of York Minster was comforting.—Becca B.

On another day, we traveled to Ripon Cathedral and Fountains Abbey. In her response, Jill made several interesting connections:

At the abbey I sat down by the river where it went through a tunnel with flowers and foliage growing over it. I sat there thinking I could just sit for hours listening to birds and the wind and feel content. It's like Wordsworth's philosophy that if you sit and let nature come to you, you will learn more than by sitting in a room looking for knowledge.—Jillian K.

We hiked from Rydal Mount, Wordsworth's home in his maturity, to Dove Cottage where William and Dorothy first settled in the lakes in 1800. The hike from Rydal Mount to Dove Cottage included scaling Nab Scar, a steep peak between the two houses.

I enjoyed visiting Dove Cottage . . . . coal was burning in the fireplaces and that gave the cottage a great atmosphere and helped to strengthen my imagination as to what it would have smelled like in Wordsworth's time. Dove Cottage must have been very dark most of the time. It is easy to forget how dark life indoors was in the 19th century. —Katie F.

Wordsworth's poetry began to take on new dimensions as we spent our days in the landscapes he immortalized. Our particular historical perspective as well as our cultural vantage point opened up ways of viewing the significance of Wordsworth's achievement:

The nature of this trip has led me to think about the ways things were in the time of William Wordsworth and to reconcile the paradox in my head. For instance, it must have been a remarkable gift of WW to be able to transcend the inherent smallness of the place, and bring out the bigness of the landscape. . . . Ever since the English came over to America, the country has been in a sort of perpetual unpacking state. While the land is big in area, our belongings have yet to find a place to retire, and seem to be reaching for landed infinity. Here everything has its place, as well as every person. . . . America's thirst for the infinity cannot be satiated. Reading Wordsworth has led me to make this distinction, as infinity is realized not in his consumption of pleasures but in his "mind's eye."—Danny I.

The links between literature and specific places made vivid impressions on all. One of the most impressive hikes to a site was to Green Head Ghyll, just outside of Grasmere, where Wordsworth's poem based on a legendary figure named Michael is set.

I found it remarkable that Green Head Ghyll seems to have remained completely unchanged since Wordsworth wrote his poem "Michael." . . . The streams or becks we passed on our treks seemed too beautiful to be real. To me they seemed like movie sets. I make sure that I periodically stop and look at the earth around me. I breath deeply, taking in the smells, and I listen to the wind that combines with the dead silences. I am amazed at how muted everything seems. It is strange to think that things can remain so quiet for miles around.—Katie F.

When we read "Michael" at Green Head Ghyll today I understood for the first time what it meant to belong to the land. "Michael" moved me in a way that it had not before class. Today the simplicity and dialogue of Michael's life made me want to go back to that time and that lifestyle. It seems that life was simpler then, and there was more appreciation for things like family relationships and their way of life.—Jillian K.

On the hike up Greenhead Ghyll . . . I began to piece together and filter in Wordsworth's description of this gorge in his poem "Michael." It was incredible to see a place he had written about so many years ago remain so unchanged. With every step we walked through a stanza and had almost written the entire poem when we came upon a stone wall. Here even greater depth was created. We sat along a wall that had a history. The painful story about how a father lost his son to city life takes place here, and one can't help but marvel at the remoteness of this place. It is easy to picture things taking place here, easy to imagine the father sitting along that wall. Nothing has changed here for hundreds of years.—Katie W.

The Haworth Moors presented us with a very different landscape. After a hike to Top Withens, the site memorialized by Emily Brontë in Wuthering Heights, one student noted her own reactions poignantly:

I think the most striking effect Top Withens had on me was its vast remoteness. There was no one and nothing moving as far as I could see. It's easy to understand where the inspiration for a dark, foreboding novel came from. I can only imagine the discomfort caused by a cold icy wind that would lash over the moor in the wintertime. I remember one of the first scenes in the novel was of a snowstorm—the narrator was ready to charge out into the snow and find his way home on the road. What road!?—Katie W.

Much of our attention academically was focused on William and Dorothy Wordsworth, as well as the Brontës, and the students dug deeply into the poetry and prose. To bring the works alive, we hiked throughout the Lake District and the Yorkshire Moors, and the overlay between the readings and the daily experiences led to some very perceptive insights about the literature and its practical meaning, as well as personal discovery.

The hike today was up Helvellyn which slaked my thirst for some sort of challenging, awe-inspiring experience. I could feel that some of us were actually enjoying the muscle strain. We also finished "Intimations of Immortality" today which means we explained Wordsworth's answer to his dilemma with lost childhood feelings. He expands on how the child loses his early fascination with natural things as the yoke of adult responsibilities is put onto him. The answer to this problem comes when WW says "We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind." He also concludes "I love the brooks which down their channels fret, even more than when I tripped lightly as they; the innocent brightness of a new born day is lovely yet. . ." In short he is saying that we should take comfort and strength in things that will always be there, even though our thoughts about them change. It is the comfort and strength wrought from this permanence that shields us from the painful notions of death which he writes as a reason for the changes in thought of things gone by.—Danny I.

Last night I read Emily Brontë's journal and could really see the differences in her writing that took place between each of her entries. It is clear that even though she and her sisters did not attend a formal school after what we would call high school, they were still receiving education from somewhere. It is interesting to know that they became accomplished writers without a college education, and while being kept away from interaction from others in the village in which they lived. One can easily see that this led to the development of a strong imagination, which helped them in their fiction writing.—Chris K.

The sometimes daunting physical demands and rough weather in themselves proved to be useful teachers:

Langdale Pike had to be the most arduous, physically draining event of my life. We climbed all day—I had no idea I had that kind of inner strength. I remember a section near the summit where there was a configuration of mossy rocks and slick grass—I couldn't keep my footing. I literally crawled on my hands and knees to the ridge above with the mantra "It's only rock and I can beat it" echoing through my skull.—Danielle P.

Langdale Pike was obviously a very different experience for me. I guess it taught me how much I'm able to put myself through and make it to the end. I don't know if I've been so cold, wet, tired, and hungry all at once. But I survived it and I guess that gives me bragging rights at least. Crossing the overflowing beck was definitely a frightening experience for me. There were a few moments when I didn't think I would make it at all, but it all turned out okay I suppose. I must admit that it was pretty cool to be on the top in the clouds as cold and windy as it was.—Rebecca D.

As I write today's entry I am feeling both physically and mentally drained. It is an interesting feeling because it's a good type of exhaustion, and I feel satisfied with what I've done today.

Langdale Pike was a long, slow hike in the rain and cold. The climb was actually easier on my legs than Nab Scar was, but the height of Langdale was what killed me. I used up every drop of my energy to make it to the first visible peak of the mountain. But when Dr. Gillin told me that we were only at the halfway point, I felt my jaw drop and my heart sink as I looked over my shoulder at the real summit still ahead.—Leora R.

To think that Wordsworth ventured the same summits we have bewilders me. I wonder what he wore and how he felt. I was uncomfortable in what I was wearing . . . wind and waterproof gear and all. I think that I have gained more respect for the poet simply knowing that things were so much different then. Langdale was tough but I'd like to think that I'll face anything, and I won't give up without a well executed attempt.—Katie F.

I was thankful for the rain for two reasons. The rain gave me a chance to kind of withdraw from the group mentally if not physically. Its hard to really get a feel for the kind of connection that Wordsworth feels and expresses in his poetry. It's hard to let a landscape stir emotion when you are surrounded by . . . other people. But the rain gave the excuse not to talk.—Katie W.

Though it would be very difficult to select a single entry that seems most effective or comprehensive, I find that the entries treating the contemplation of experiences and poetry most intriguing because I feel sure that the students will never read poetry in the same way as they did in the past.

Something about Wordsworth's poetry struck me today. I find his take on the nature of man really interesting. Remembering The Prelude, Wordsworth reflects on his imperfections and is very open about it. He approaches imperfections with a very candid frankness that is very appealing. "There Once Was A Boy" ends with the pivotal and realistic stanza where the sweet boy is now dead. It hit me with a heavy impact while listening to that poem. Other poems such as "Michael" have that aspect too. In "Michael" the relationship between Michael and his land is shown through Michael's losing his son as well as the land. Wordsworth's trying to show how nature is vital to humanity, and that man makes mistakes but nature does not. The men come and go, but the land does not.—Jillian K.

We can see by looking at "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" the similarities between Wordsworth and Blake. Blake stated that by feeding the most primal appetites of man that he would be able to perceive infinity. However this was not the purpose of his poetry. Rather it was meant to create a "contradiction" to convention—something that would create enlightenment for the reader. In the same sense, infinity is exposed to the reader of Wordsworth though contradiction may not have been the message. I feel that this was a big deal in Wordsworth's poetry. In a time period when man was competing to build the biggest canal, or produce more goods with less human resource, he was promoting not the bigness of man's creations but the endlessness of nature.—Danny I.

Wordsworth poems "Expostulation and Reply" and "The Tables Turned" represent a change in traditional thought of the time. People got so caught up in learning through books and professors that they missed knowledge from other important places. Wordsworth felt that knowledge could be gained from other sources such as nature. This thought was considered radical at the time, but today it is a common thought. I personally think that many times things can be learned by observing nature rather than sitting in a classroom reading from a book. In "The Tables Turned" Wordsworth makes his point even further by talking about how books often dull the senses (sight) and bits of information can be lost in uninteresting subjects. He points out how captivating nature is and about the many secrets that lie hidden within it. These are some of the things that I have also noticed in our many treks. If you concentrate or just let yourself relax into nature, you can often discover things you haven't noticed before.—Chris K.

The effect of the experiences on the students cannot be measured accurately, but I think that one of the entries that expresses the importance of the natural world and reaction to it at a particular time was written just before our departure:

I cannot even begin to explain how the landscapes here have inspired me. It's an overwhelming feeling to have so much beauty pushed upon me for three weeks. I cannot possibly see these mountains and lakes the same way that Wordsworth did—he was familiar with this place in a unique way. But I feel that no matter how many times I come back here, I'll always see the Lake District as if it were my first time here.—Leora R.

My experience as a teacher was profoundly fulfilling because of the experiences I had with the students in Yorkshire and the lakes, and I know that we were fortunate to have the opportunity to be in the locations we visited. But I am also convinced that even though not every English teacher will have the same opportunity to bring students to England and travel with them for several weeks, English teachers can use the natural environments they live in to their advantage. Sharing experiences that are physically challenging and linking poems with those experiences provides a bond of understanding that is powerful. It is not necessary to travel to faraway places; there is a wealth of experience to be had rather close at hand. I continually ask students now to take note of the ordinary things in their days—the way last week was different than this as measured by the way the trees and grasses look, how the afternoon light is altered as fall comes on, or what they have felt on the bottoms of their feet as they moved about campus. All of these considerations contribute to a sensitive reappreciation of where and how we live.

About the Author Richard Gillin teaches English at Washington College, Maryland, where he is the chairman of both the English Department and the Humanities Program. He was formerly a director of the Eastern Shore Writing Project, when it was a satellite site of the Maryland Writing Project.

Link to the The Wordsworth Trust website. It's focus is "Dove Cottage and the hamlet of Town End, Grasmere, a place and a landscape at the centre of the English Lake District where the poet lived, wrote and found inspiration...."

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