ENGL 204 / ENGL 331: Renaissance Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

John Donne, Ben Jonson and Early 17th-Century Poetry

Primary Readings checklist: 

1) John Donne and the "Metaphysical" poets: 

  • Donne:  "The Flea"; "Song" ("Go and Catch a Falling Star"); "The Sun Rising"; "The Indifferent"; "The Canonization"; "The Bait"; "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"; Elegy 19, "To His Mistress Going to Bed"); "Satire 3" ("On Religion"); Holy Sonnets 1, 10, 17; "Meditation 17" (NA 1236-41, 1247-9, 1256-60, 1268-71, 1277-8).
  • (George) Herbert: "The Altar"; "Redemption"; "Easter Wings"; "Jordan (1)"; "Love (3)" (NA 1597, 1599, 1601-2, 1614-5).
  • Crashaw: "In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord God: A Hymn Sung as by the Shepherds" (NA 1635-8).
  • Marvell, selections 1: "The Coronet"; "Bermudas" (NA 1685-7).
  • Taylor: "Prologue" to Preparatory Meditations; "Meditation 22 (First Series)" ("When Thy Bright Beams, my Lord, do strike mine Eye"); "Upon Wedlock, and Death of Children"; "Huswifery" (click HERE to access assigned headnote and poems as e-reserve readings; be sure to PRINT THEM OUT and bring them with you to class).  Note: you are NOT responsible for Meditations 8 and 42 and "Upon a Wasp Chilled with Cold," found on the e-reserve pages adjacent to the assigned readings. 
2) Ben Jonson and the "Sons of Ben" / "Cavalier" poets: 
  • Jonson: "To My Book"; "On My First Daughter"; "To John Donne"; "On Giles and Joan"; "On My First Son"; "Song: To Celia"; "A Sonnet to the Noble Lady, the Lady Mary Wroth"; "My Picture Left in Scotland" (NA 1393-6, 1402, 1408-9). 
  • Herrick: "Delight in Disorder"; "To the Virgins. . . "; "Upon the Nipples of Julia's Breast"; "Upon Jack and Jill"; "His Prayer to Ben Jonson"; "Upon His Verses" (NA 1646, 1649-52, 1654). 
  • Carew: "A Rapture" (NA 1661-4).
  • Suckling: "Song," "Loving and Beloved"; "Out upon it!" (NA 1665-6, 1669-70).
  • Lovelace: "To Lucasta. . . "; "To Althea . . . "; "Love Made in the First Age" (NA 1670-74).
  • Marvell, selections 2: "To His Coy Mistress"; "Damon the Mower" (NA 1691-2, 1696-7).

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Early 17th-Century Poetry


Read carefully the historical and cultural overview NA 1209-1230, esp. 1217-9, 1226-7, and 1229 (on Marvell); also familiarize yourself with the timeline NA 1231-2. By the time of the final exam, you should be sure you understand the connection between religious affiliation and political power during the reigns of James I and Charles I, under the Puritan Commonwealth and Protectorate, and after the Restoration of Charles II to the throne. (Know what was the religion of the party or person in power and the degree of tolerance extended to people of other religious faiths.) Pay particular attention to the rise of Puritanism -- including political influence, religious belief and Puritan attitudes toward literature -- and to the contrasting views of those who opposed them (Royalists, Catholics and more main-stream Anglicans). As usual, know basic biographical information for each poet/writer assigned -- lifespan (dates), social class, education, religion, political affiliation; also date of composition and/or publication of works, if known. Be sure you know what is meant by the terms "metaphysical poetry" and "metaphysical conceit" as well as which poets are commonly counted as "metaphysical" poets.

As you read the various literary works assigned in the second half of the quarter, ALWAYS be sure you know whether the poets/authors were Puritans, Anglicans, Catholics, Royalists, Roundheads, Revolutionaries. . . or something in between. Pay attention to the dates of their works or poetic activity to see how they reflect or react to the dominant political or religious authority at that time. Look for the impact of their connection with or opposition to the dominant power structure in the assigned works, always keeping in mind whether or not their personal beliefs were the same as that of the official power structure at that time.

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Some Historical Background: 
"Cavaliers," "Roundheads" and Puritanism

During the reign of Charles I, successor to James I, there was a Civil War between the supporters of the King and court (known as "Cavaliers") and the supporters of Parliament (known as "Roundheads," possibly because they wore their hair short). In general, Roundheads were hostile to anything associated with the court -- including its refined literary forms. The conflict was part political (if the Parliament got more power, the monarch and court had less); part religious (the Roundheads tended to be extremely Puritan, and were shocked at the laxity and frivolity of the court); part cultural: poetry had traditionally been an aristocratic pursuit and thus was not to be trusted (recall that poetic skill that was part of the sprezzatura of the ideal courtier). Poems were mostly written within court circles, for court audiences; poetry tended to be circulated in manuscript form rather than published; skill in writing verses was to a certain extent a sign of good breeding, like dressing well or using the right fork at dinner.

The Puritans revived the anti-poetry attitudes that Sidney reacts to in his Defense of Poesie. Not surprisingly, during the years of the Puritan Protectorate, following the Puritan revolt and the execution of Charles I, very little poetry appeared. In the years leading up to the Revolution, however, there was a great deal of poetic activity, primarily centered on the court or aristocratic circles. The two main "groups" of poets were the "metaphysical" poets, of whom the greatest was John Donne, and the so-called "Sons of Ben" -- poets who admired and emulated England's first (unofficial) Poet Laureate, Ben Jonson. The latter group to a certain extent overlapped with the "cavalier" poets, so called because most of them were aristocrats who gallantly supported the lost cause of Charles Stuart (loyalty to the monarch was a part of their aristocratic code). Their subject matter tends to emphasize gallant virtues and aristocratic values; the style and tone are witty and light, and not infrequently there is a thematic connection with the poems of erotic seduction which we associate with Marlowe, Ralegh, and Campion or some of the male sonnet writers (compare assigned poems by Jonson, Herrick, Carew, Suckling, Lovelace and Marvell [selections 2]). 

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Backgrounds II: Metaphysical Poetry

The term "metaphysical" is used to designate the work of 17th-century writers who were part of a school of poets using similar methods and who revolted against the romantic conventionalism of Elizabethan love poetry, in particular the Petrarchan conceit. It includes a certain anti-feminist tradition; see e.g. Donne's "Go and Catch a Falling Star" or "The Apparition."

John Donne was the acknowledged leader of the poets today identified as "metaphysical" (though they themselves would not have used the term, nor have considered themselves to constitute a "school" of poetry). No exact list of "metaphysical poets" can be drawn up. Crashaw and Cowley have been called the most "typically" metaphysical. Some were Protestant religious mystics, like Herbert, Vaughan and Traherne; some Catholic, like Crashaw; one was an American clergyman, Edward Taylor. While less easily assimilatable, Marvell shares certain affinities with the "metaphysical" poets. The "metaphysicals" are popular with modern readers because of their realism, their intellectualism, and their break with their immediate literary past.

Some characteristics of metaphysical poetry include:

  • a tendency to psychological analysis of emotion of love and religion
  • a penchant for imagery that is novel, "unpoetical" and sometimes shocking, drawn from the commonplace (actual life) or the remote (erudite sources), including the extended metaphor of the "metaphysical conceit"
  • simple diction (compared to Elizabethan poetry) which echoes the cadences of everyday speech
  • form: frequently an argument (with the poet's lover; with God; with oneself)
  • meter: often rugged, not "sweet" or smooth like Elizabethan verse. This ruggedness goes naturally with the Metaphysical poets' attitude and purpose: a belief in the perplexity of life, a spirit of revolt, and the putting of an argument in speech rather than song.
  • The best metaphysical poetry is honest, unconventional, and reveals the poet's sense of the complexities and contradictions of life. It is intellectual, analytical, psychological, and bold; frequently it is absorbed in thoughts of death, physical love, and religious devotion.
A "metaphysical conceit" is a far-fetched and ingenious extended comparison (or "conceit") used by metaphysical poets to explore all areas of knowledge. It finds telling and unusual analogies for the poet's ideas in the startlingly esoteric or the shockingly commonplace -- not the usual stuff of poetic metaphor.

It is often grotesque and extravagant, e.g. Crashaw's comparison of Mary Magdalene's tear-filled eyes as "Two walking baths; two weeping motions / Portable and compendious oceans." Donne's comparison of his union with his lover to the draftsman's compass in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" is more successful because it gives us a perception of a real but previously unsuspected similarity that is therefore enlightening.

Typical metaphysical conceits come from a wide variety of areas of knowledge: coins (mintage); alchemy; medieval philosophy and angelology (see e.g. Donne's "Air and Angels," NA 1243 [not assigned for this class]); meteorology (sighs are blasts, tears are floods); mythology (the Phoenix's riddle, the river Styx); government ("she is the state, he is the Prince" from Donne's "The Sun Rising"); travelling (Donne's "Go and Catch a Falling Star"); astronomy; metallurgy ("gold to airy thinness beat"); geometry (the twin compasses); law; geography.

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John Donne and Metaphysical Poetry

Before reading the poems, carefully read the headnote on each poet as well as the assigned background reading on the Early Seventeenth Century (esp. NA 1217-9, 1226-7, and 1229 on Marvell, as well as the headnote to Edwards on e-reserve). See if you can make connections between the political, cultural or religious attitudes of the poets and the poems they produced. How would you characterize their poetry? Think about such subjects as: form; subjects and themes (religious, erotic, pastoral, etc.); tone; relationship to prior literary tradition (e.g. classical sources, influence of other contemporary poets, etc.) Review An Approach to Reading and Writing About Poems as needed for guidance.

Consider the two sides of John Donne (Jack the rebel vs. the serious, pious Dean of St. Paul). How does each side come out in the poetry? Does one dominate? Which poems glorify erotic love or otherwise resemble the playful and witty seduction poems of Marlowe, Ralegh and Campion?  To what extent does Donne's poetry express Christian humanist values? Note how the Holy Sonnets differ from the 16th-century sonnets read earlier in the term. Read Donne's famous Meditation 17 (NA 1277-8). Are you surprised that its author is the same man who produced "The Flea" or "The Bait"? What common characteristics can you find in both sorts of writing? Notice Donne's use of the so-called "metaphysical conceit" in such poems as "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" (the image of the twin compasses in stanzas 7-9). Read carefully headnote to Donne's Satire 3 (1257; know significance of Roman poets Juvenal, Horace and Persius). Note how this poem reflects a new religious pluralism (see lines 43-69). Pay particular attention to the key passage beginning "doubt wisely," lines 77-92. What is Donne saying in this passage? In all of these works, note Donne's use of colloquial speech patterns; odd twists in imagery and ideas; unusual variation on older poetic forms (meter, rhyme scheme and stanzaic patterns). 

What points of contact do you note between Donne and Herbert, Crashaw, Marvell (selections 1), or the "American metaphysical" poet Edward Taylor? To what extent do they fit into the poetic traditions discussed earlier this quarter (e.g. the sonnets, pastoral poetry, playful poems about erotic seduction, etc.)?  Which of Donne's poems do they most closely resemble? Do they correspond more closely to the "rakish" side of John Donne (Jack the Rebel) or to his more serious, spiritual side (the Dean of Saint Paul's)?  What characteristics of these works can be seen as "metaphysical"?  How and to what extent do they surpass that classification?

READER NOTES: When reading works with religious themes, it is particularly important to keep in mind the poet's religious affiliation (and personal religious history) and the official (or unofficial) attitude of those in power toward that particular religion at the time when the work in question was written and/or published.  Other things to look for / note as you read:

  • (George) Herbert (NA 1597 ff.):  "The Altar"; "Redemption"; "Easter Wings"; "Jordan (1)"; "Love (3)" (NA 1597, 1599, 1601-2, 1614-5).  Note the religious themes which connect these poems to the more serious side of Donne's work (e.g. the Holy Sonnets).  Notice Herbert's attention to form, e.g. in the "shaped verse" where the formatting of the poem on the page resembles its subject (e.g. "The Altar," "Easter Wings"; see NA 1596 and 1597 n. 2 ).  In the religious sonnet "Redemption," note the metaphysical conceit of Herbert as the dissatisfied tenant who complains to his landlord, Christ, with surprising results.  Note Herbert's somewhat self-conscious defense of his decision to write religious verse rather than poems on secular topics (e.g. about about erotic love or in praise or memory of an acquaintance) in "Jordan (1)," with its allusions to allegory, epigrams written in praise of their subject, pastoral poetry, and the conventioal imagery of lyrical verse.  In "Love (3)," note the transformation of the conventional imagery of erotic love poetry into an expression of religious faith (compare e.g. Donne's "Holy Sonnets").
  • Crashaw(NA 1629 ff.) "In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord God: A Hymn Sung as by the Shepherds" (NA 1635-8).  You can skim this one -- don't worry about the details  -- but note how Crashaw transforms the conventions of pastoral poetry, shifting its focus from erotic love and attempted seduction to a religious message.  His shepherds, Tityrus and Thyrsis (both conventional names in classical pastoral poetry, a trace of Crashaw's classical humanist education) are those to whom the angels announced the birth of Christ, and the love of which they sing is the "lamb's" love for his shepherds, i.e. Christ/God's love for humanity, rather than their own love for a comely shepherdess. 
  • Marvell(selections 1, NA 1685-7): In "The Coronet," note a shift similar to Crashaw's religious rewriting of the traditional pastoral shepherd as Marvell shifts between the wreath of flowers with which he claims once to have crowned the head of a comely shepherdess (symbol of a man's erotic love for a woman), Christ's crown of thorns (symbol of God's love for humanity), and the "coronet" of poems which constitutes his volume of verse (symbol of the poet's "love" for and pride in his craft).  It is therefore not surprising that the poems that make up this "crown" touch on both religious themes (in these two poems) and secular ones (in the poems listed under Marvell, selections 2).  Finally, note use of New World imagery in the poem "Bermudas" and consider how Marvell connects it to the theme of religious freedom.  Marvell's Bermuda is the Puritan settlers' God-given place of refuge from both the perils of a long sea voyage and the religious persecution they had suffered in their homeland.  It is described in highly positive terms as a "kinder isle," a new Eden and a place of hope.  Note that there is no mention of any native people inhabiting the island.  Does this omission suggest a "darker" side of Marvell's attitude toward or assumptions about the New World? (Are there analogies to the tension between European colonizer and native colonized which we noted e.g. in Shakespeare's The Tempest or Ralegh's account of the "discovery" of Guiana)?  How (and why?) do these works differ from each other in their treatment of the "New World" theme?
  • Taylor (e-reserve readings; be sure to PRINT THEM OUT and bring them with you to class!).  Edward Taylor was a Puritan who emigrated to Massachusetts in 1668 rather than sign a loyalty oath to the Church of England.  His view of the "New World" was considerably bleaker than Marvell's -- he initially considered New England to be a "howling wilderness," a place of exile rather than a God-given refuge -- but he eventually made his career there, becoming the Minister of the town of Westfield, where he spent the last fifty-eight years of his life. As you read, note the affinities and connections between his work and that of the other "Metaphysical" poets, particularly Donne (all of whom he presumably read as a boy in England).  In the "Prologue" to Preparatory Meditations, note the parallels that are drawn between the Poet as maker and that Greater Maker, God.  Unlike Sidney, who (in the Defense of Poesy) described poets as a higher type of "maker" than nature, but inferior to God, Taylor implicitly goes a step further, drawing parallels between his own status as poetic Creator and God. In this regard, he resembles the Milton of Paradise Lost, who, like Taylor, suggests that he is in some way God's mouthpiece.  Compare "Meditation 22 (First Series)" ("When Thy Bright Beams, my Lord, do strike mine Eye") to Donne's Meditation 17 (NA 1277 ff.)  While there are obvious differences in form (verse vs. prose) and the specific topic differs, one senses in both works the thoughts of an experienced and eloquent preacher.  What imagery or themes in Taylor's work seem particularly suited to a Puritan (rather than an Anglican) viewpoint or sensibility? Compare "Upon Wedlock, and Death of Children" to Jonson's poems mourning the loss of a child (or Donne's retreat into religiosity after his wife's death, as expressed in the Holy Sonnets).  You will want to keep both of these poems in mind later in the quarter when we read Katherine Philips's "On the Death of My First and Dearest Child, Hector Philips" (NA 1683-4).  Finally, note the use of domestic imagery in "Huswifery."  Why do you think Taylor chooses imagery taken from the domestic sphere to express his religious sentiments in this poem?  Is it significant that his God is here presented as a housewife rather than, say, a judge or a soldier? Can you see affinities between Taylor's personal experience as a Puritan forced to leave England for his faith, and the experiences (not necessarily religious) of the women poets whose work we have read?  You will want to keep Taylor's work in mind week 8 when we will read some selections from the work of the Puritan American poet Anne Bradstreet.
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Ben Jonson and the "Cavalier" Poets / "Sons of Ben"

In 1616, Ben Jonson published his collected Works and received a royal pension (making him, unofficially, a sort of "Poet Laureate" of England). But he was principally known in his time as a playwright. How is Jonson's poetry different from the 16th-century sonnets and other Renaissance lyrics read earlier this term? What do they have in common?. Compare/contrast with the poetry of Donne. Why might Jonson's work have been more appealing than Donne's to an aristocratic audience? What might Donne criticize about Jonson? 

How do the works of the other assigned poets (Herrick, Carew, Suckling, Lovelace, Marvell [selections 2]) fit into the poetic traditions discussed earlier this quarter (e.g. the sonnets, pastoral poetry, playful poems about erotic seduction, etc.)?  Are any of the assigned readings further responses to Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" (or at least poems in the same vein)?  Are there affinities between these poems and the "rakish" side of John Donne ("Jack the Rebel")?

READER NOTES: things to look for / notice as you read.

  • Jonson (NA 1292-4 ff.):  Know the definition of "epigram,"including importance of the Roman poet Martial as a model, and know how some of  Jonson's epigrams deviate from the traditional epigram (see Glossary, NA A-55, and NA 1393, n. 1).  In "To My Book," note how Jonson describes the difference between what people expect of a collection called "epigrams" and what he claims the poems in his collection will (and will not) do / be about. Note in this regard the two poignant poems commemorating the deaths of Jonson's first daughter and son, which transcend the ordinary definition of epigraphs.  How do these poems compare with the ways other poets write about the loss of a child? (compare e.g. Taylor, assigned for today; or Philips, NA 1683-4, assigned for week 8).  Is there a connection between the acute consciousness of mortality brought on by the death of a child and e.g. the religiosity of some of the "metaphysical" poets, on the one hand, or the sensual carpe diem ("seize the day") theme found in Donne and the "Sons of Ben" poets?  Note Jonson's obvious admiration for Donne in the poem dedicated to him.  Which aspects of Donne's poetry do you think Jonson may have particularly admired or felt an affinity with? In "On Giles and Joan," note the humorous cynicism and arguably misogynistic streak of this "battle of the sexes" poem; compare to Herrick's "Upon Jack and Jill." By contrast, "Song: To Celia" is a beautifully melodic but relatively conventional poem praising a lady's beauty; it lacks the satiric bite and humor of "On Giles and Joan," but displays Jonson's classical learning (it is based on translations of five passages from the work of the Greek sophist Philostratus). It is memorable for its polish and elegant musicality rather than for any particularly striking imagery or memorable message it contains (which makes it very different from e.g. the love poems which Donne wrote to his wife).  Finally, note Jonson's admiration of Mary Wroth, whose poetry he claims made him both "a better lover, and much better poet."  His hommage to her is notable both in the sonnet form he chooses to follow and in the specific imagery (like Wroth, he alludes to the maternal Venus) -- but unlike Wroth, he can express sexual desire more openly than is typical of a woman poet (see e.g. the reference to Venus's aphrodisiacal "ceston," or belt, in the final line).  In "My Picture Left in Scotland," note the playful pastoral-like theme of an attempted seduction, the humorous way in which he recounts his failure with the lady in question, and the implicit acknowledgement of the link between this vein of light, quasi-erotic verse and seduction (see e.g. the final line). 
  • Herrick (NA 1643-4 ff.): note the connection between feminine seductiveness and a sprezzatura-like careless grace in "Delight in Disorder"; the carpe diem theme in "To the Virgins. . ."; the frank delight in sexuality in these poems as well as in "Upon the Nipples of Julia's Breast"; and the cynicism (bordering on misogyny) of "Upon Jack and Jill," which recalls, in different ways, both Jonson's cynicism in "On Giles and Joan" and the debunking of the cliches of love poetry in Ralegh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd"; the obvious affection for and admiration of Jonson in "His Prayer to Ben Jonson"; the pride in his own poetic work in "Upon His Verses," which also revisits the theme of poetry as the poet's "children" (previously suggested e.g in the sonnets of Spenser and Shakespeare). 
  • Carew (NA 1656 ff.): Note that while we are grouping Carew with the "sons of Ben" because of the sensuality and eroticism of "A Rapture," his work also shows affinities with the poetry of Donne (although more the rakish "Jack" than the pious "Dean of St. Paul's").  It is telling that Carew wrote poems in honor of both Donne andJonson (see NA 1656-60; not assigned for this class).  Read "A Rapture" over quickly; don't worry about all the details, but note the odd mixture of classical references and explicit (and graphically described!) sensuality.
  • Suckling (NA 1664 ff.): note the cynical attitude toward love and sexuality.  To which other poets does his work have the most affinity?
  • Lovelace (NA 1670 ff.): note the expression of Cavalier ideals (and echoes of Lovelace's personal experience) in "To Lucasta" (the theme of honor and duty in time of war) and "To Althea" (prison imagery); as well as the frank sensuality of "Love made in the First Age: To Chloris" (Lovelace's words to "Chloris" recalls Campion's Amaryllis, "the wanton country maid").
  • Marvell (selections 2, NA 1684-5 ff.): note the carpe diem theme and metaphysical conceit of the worms and the grave in "To His Coy Mistress"; note the transformation of pastoral conventions and Petrarchan imagery in "Damon the Mower." Is it surprising that these are the works of the same poet who wrote religious-themed poems like "The Coronet" and "Bermudas"?  Do you see points of affinity between the more secular and the explicitly religious works?  If the secular and the sacred are seen as the twin poles of Marvell's work, can one be said to predominate?  To what extent is this secular / sacred dichotomy similar to the two sides of John Donne ("Jack the Rebel" vs. the "Dean of St. Paul").  How do they differ? 

LOOKING AHEAD:  later this quarter (end of week 8), we will read the works of some 17th-century women poets who are contemporaries of the male poets assigned this week.  You will consider whether and to what extent the works of the women poets Lanyer, Cavendish, Philips and the colonial American poet Bradstreet fit into the "metaphysical" or "Cavalier" camps.  Does gender seem to play a role in choice of subject matter, imagery, genre or form? How might prevailing attitudes about women writers (see NA headnotes and online introduction to Bradstreet) have affected their works? Recall how Mary Herbert's pastoral eclogue differed from the pastoral poetry of many male contemporaries, and how Mary Wroth transformed the conventions of sonnet writing to fit a woman's perspective and experience. Do you notice any difference in the relationship between poetic subject (the "I" of the poems) and the objects to/about whom they write? Are the topics chosen and concerns expressed by the poetic persona different from those focussed on by male poets? Are the images and allusions effective in conveying a distinctly female experience (as poet, mother, wife, friend, subject, or in another private or public role)?  Consider also the assigned prose selections by Lanyer and Cavendish.  How do they add to our understanding of why these women took up their pens and of the themes they choose to address in their writing?

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As you read the assigned poems, refer back to the "Hints for Reading the Poems."  You will not have time to go through the full "Approach to Reading and Writing About Poems" for all assigned readings, but you should keep them at hand and use them to analyze one or two assigned poems which you particularly enjoy.

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1997-2005

Click here for Sonnets study guide

Click here for Pastoral and Women's Voices study guide

Click here for 17th-Century Women Writers study guide

Click here for An Approach to Reading and Writing About Poems

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