“Sylvia Plath’s Master Narrative: Developing her Poetic Voice”
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Seminar in a Major Figure: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes
11 February 2014
North Callahan Essay Prize Submission
Undeniably, Sylvia Plath’s final book of poetry entitled Ariel, including the post-Ariel poems added to the work by her husband Ted Hughes, marks her as a brilliant modern poet. However, while this late poetry is lauded as her best work, the themes and images she uses either resemble those from her previous poems or are not-so-subtle continuations of them. Consequently, language and style distinguish the Ariel poems from Plath’s preceding poetry. Though shaped and molded by poetic tradition, Plath finds her own poetic voice by denying the influence of this tradition, thus presenting a refreshingly organic, confident style. She quickly became a feminist icon, not only as a result of her suicide and the subsequent publication of Ariel, but also because her new poetic voice related to and spoke for a previously silenced demographic. With unabashed self-interest, or, arguably, self-obsession, Plath tells a thematic master-narrative—recognition of the self as inferior to a superior other, revolution or rebellion by this inferior self, and eventual reconstruction of a valuable, independent identity—through direct, contemporary language and dramatic, associative imagery that reflects the resonating social reality of cultural displacement in a post-World War II society that attempts to reconstruct its own identity. By examining selections from her entire oeuvre, one can see that the transformative process of finding her voice through experimentation with language and imagery that parallels the struggle within Plath’s master narrative to identify one’s self on a personal and societal level.
Even in her early work, particular images surface that she revisits in different situations throughout her entire body of work. As Jo Gill explains in The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath, while Plath’s poetry from her years at Smith College “provide[s] evidence of Plath’s long and intense apprenticeship and offer[s] insights into the early seeds of some of her later concerns,” these poems lack the creative and emotional complexities of her later work (Gill 30). For example, Plath often relies on the sea-related imagery of her childhood and adolescence in coastal Massachusetts. In A Memory of Sylvia Plath, a detailed autobiographical recollection of Sylvia Plath from Plath’s roommate post-attempted suicide, Nancy Hunter Steiner describes Plath’s emotional connection to the sea as her home. Steiner emphasizes the “poet’s eye for the minutiae of nature and an ear tuned to the lyric cadences of their names” that Plath naturally assumes even when giving a tour of the coast. Before Steiner ever actually saw an ocean, Plath had created one for her, “so precisely did she describe the colors, the hubbub, and the throbbing, deep-summer tenor of the place” (Steiner 49). Consequently, the sea or ocean can be traced throughout Plath’s work, from Juvenilia poems “Aquatic Nocturne” and “Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea” to later poems, such as “Full Fathom Five,” Point Shirley,” and “Suicide off Egg Rock” (The Collected Poems).
These “seeds of Plath’s later strengths” manifest themselves especially in collections of sharp, fragmented images that evoke immediate raw, sensory reactions (Gill 30). In “Aquatic Nocturne,” Plath paints an underwater watercolor with “liquid indigo/turquoise slivers/of dilute light,” “grapeblue mussels,” and “dull lunar globes/of bulbous jellyfish” that “glow milkgreen,” describing an ethereal unknown and pairing it with sound that is “blunt and wan/like the bronze tone/of a sunken gong” (The Collected Poems 305-306). She deftly transcribes her dramatic vision of the sea into an illustration made from words, using the “poet’s eye” that Steiner so clearly recalls. While strikingly, hauntingly beautiful, this illustration remains simply a landscape, lacking emotional complexity or depth. However well this poem captures a pure experience through imagery and description, it resembles Plath’s other early poetry in that it suffers from the constraints of poetic tradition, as the methodical structure and organization borrows heavily on the poets she admired and imitated, such as Auden, Roetke, and Poe. Steiner’s explanation of Plath’s writing process follows the same lines:
Sylvia constructed images as an engineer designs a bridge–with painstaking, almost
mathematical attention to every detail. She wrote slowly, plodding through dictionary and thesaurus searching for the exact word to create the poetic impression she intended…the words did not flow in a steady, effortless stream. They could be released only painfully, bit by agonizing bit, as though wrenched free of some massive blockage (Steiner 43-44).
Although Steiner’s memories of Plath are tainted by hindsight, the Ariel volume, and media attention, her explication aptly communicates the painfully contrived nature of Plath’s early poetic voice, as if she is attempting to stitch together different aspects of others’ voices—and poetic identities—that she admires.
If her very earliest poetry draws too much from previous poets, “Full Fathom Five” demonstrates a forced attempt to reject traditional form, causing her to make similar mistakes. In “Full Fathom Five,” Sylvia Plath speaks to an incarnation of a recurring father figure–this time the “old man”–in fifteen slant-rhyming tercets, repeating sea-related imagery, heavy consonance and assonance, and the concept of death and resurrection to which she would later return. Even the title of the piece insinuates the significance of sea imagery, referring to the scene in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest during the second stanza of “Ariel’s Song,” in which Ferdinand’s father lies five fathoms under water and is transforming into a part of the sea, just as the speaker’s “old man” does (The Collected Poems 92). She implies the oppressive, dangerous nature of their relationship, ending with the contradictory “Father, this thick air is murderous./I would breathe water” (44-45).
For Plath, the sea not only represents life and eternity but also danger, violence, and death; however, the danger remains implied in “Full Fathom Five,” restrained until the final few stanzas. Even though the speaker explains that “…All obscurity/Starts with a danger:/Your dangers are many,” the explicit statement and the overuse of sea-image comparisons confines the poem to illustration as opposed to combining a variety of senses to complete an experience (16-17). Thus, “Full Fathom Five” appears as a painting, with Plath’s audience distanced from the experience. Although certain images seem to imply danger or violence, as with the “One labyrinthine tangle/To root deep among knuckles, shinbones,/Skulls…,” the reader remains acutely aware that, as with a painting, the danger rests safely within the confines of the page (34-36). Even over this distance, Plath communicates the definitive role of the “old man” as destructive superior—a godlike being under whose authoritative power she necessarily suffers. Similarly, the form of the poem itself suffers under the pressure of thousands of years of poetic tradition.
Another recurring image throughout Plath’s work begins in her Juvenilia, with “the challenge of assembling fractured and statuesque figures, seen in ‘Touch-and-Go’ and ‘Gold mouths cry’” (Gill 30). “Touch-and-Go” introduces a “statuary” whose “staunch stone eyes” watch silently as children playing in a park, and “Gold mouths cry” describes a “bronze boy” who “stands kneedeep in centuries,/and never grieves” (The Collected Poems 302 and 335). Both statues reveal the hardships of time and age forever frozen while the world around them changes. In her article “The Unitive Urge in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath,” however, Pamela A. Smith states that “despite their success, the fusions in The Colossus are evasive in that they attract a rather superficial attention to themselves” (Smith 325). Much of Plath’s pre-Ariel poetry continues the “showy acrobatics, tense tightrope-walking, and tiptoeing bravado” from her Juvenilia period (Smith 325). With showy language manipulation and imagery, such as with the statues that must heroically experience eternity, Plath overzealously embraces ambitious themes. Because her language and images fuse together so impeccably, these themes become undermined by the inevitable transparency.
Plath’s desire for unity is evident in form, content, and the overarching master narrative created by weaving repeated images and themes throughout her work. In her statues, Plath imbues an eternal and omniscient power, just as the obscure, unknown reaches of the sea glow as beacons of that same power. They embody the independent constant to which Plath clings, whether that constant takes the form of her father or poetic tradition. Thus, with both form and content, Plath forms the first act of her master narrative. Her Juvenilia and other early poetry reflects a tenacious desire to assimilate herself into the life of the powerful Other, the “old myth of origins,” willing to forsake and sacrifice a life that she insists is fated to tragedy (The Collected Poems 92). The speakers of her poems from this period exhibit childish dependence upon and glorification of the Other, while her style displays juvenile inexperience, overusing similar images and focusing too intently upon recreating a visual scene.
However, “The Colossus” reflects a dramatic change in Plath’s relationship to the dominating independent constant, rejecting a sentimental or glorified depiction of the ancient “Colossus” monument, or of the father figure, in favor of juxtaposing ancient Greek and Roman mythological allusions with crude images of barnyard animals and common household objects in order to demonstrate the decay of the Colossus’s power and the resulting independence of the speaker. Using these images in conjunction with jarring consonance and descriptions of the speaker’s janitorial failures, Plath’s voice begins to finally break free of its previous restraints, or at least to recognize that her voice itself is restrained, and that her desire to reconstruct a poetic voice from the fragmented remains of others’ voices was restraining her. “The Colossus” demonstrates her realization that, like the ancient world, her inspiration and her muse died long ago, leaving only her colossal memory of him, or the power that she has imbued into the remnants of his image, to oppress her.
By degrading this unique representation of the greatness, power, and strength of the greatest ancient Western empires with language and style associated with all that is common, lowly, and mass-produced, the speaker frees herself from her own worshipful adoration. While it “consider[s] [it]self an oracle,” the Colossus is nothing more than a representation of a long-fallen glory—and even the last memory of these once-great civilizations will soon be gone forever, as the speaker is alone in her attempts reconstruct the past. She describes herself as “an ant in mourning,” miniscule in comparison to the looming giant, wielding only “gluepots” and “pails of Lysol,” the ultimate contemporary repair agents; however, they are no match for “the immense skull-plates” and “the weedy acres of [the Colossus’s] brow” (The Collected Poems 129).
The Colossus contrasts his predecessors from “Touch-and-Go” and “Gold mouths cry” by avoiding the façade of glory, honor, and heroism combined with happy children or nature. Plath’s speaker “shall never get [the Colossus] put together entirely,” admitting the futility of her attempts at having “pieced” and “glued” the Colossus so that it is once again “properly joined” (Collected Poems 129). Although the speaker has clearly dedicated “thirty years” of labor “to dredge the silt from [its] throat,” all that “proceed[s]” from the “great lips” of the Colossus are “mule-bray, pig-grunt, and bawdy cackles” that reveal the true nature of this statue. It reflects the reality that Plath’s speaker previously avoided by granting the statues, the “old man,” and the sea strength and power in being unknown and untouchable, idolizing them in upright glory rather than fallen, crumbling pity.
The ancient world of petty, cruel gods is not the only one to decay. By including modern-day household items, Plath establishes a sense of setting and time. She has come to recognize that she is ill-equipped for reconstructing tradition when her tools, meaning her experiences and her cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, reflect exemplary creations of a distinctly modern society. From her middle-class upbringing to the mere opportunity to be a woman poet and writer, Plath’s entire identity rejects submission to and integration into the established voice of antiquity. While “The Colossus” remains unsuccessful in attaining a poetic voice distinctly for herself, the acceptance of artistic tradition as dead demonstrates a significant development in Plath’s process toward distinguishing herself from the other poets of her time and all those preceding her. Sylvia Plath’s meta-narrative enters into its second act as she begins to revolt against the poetic tradition that restrains her creativity, realizing the need for an original, autonomous self.
In their article “The Drama of Creativity in Plath’s Early Poems,” Steven Gould Axelrod and Nan Dorsey emphasize that, “in a sense, all of Plath’s poems, early and late, comprise a single metapoem” that “refers not only to itself but to the imaginative struggle that creates it” (Axelrod 78). While they meant to demonstrate that Plath’s early poetry equals her late poetry in “evok[ing] the drama of creative desire,” the “metapoem” that displays the “imaginative struggle that creates it” through the process of telling this overarching master narrative is also clearly visible when adapting a critical view of her early work (Axelrod 78-79). The stifling father figure does not disappear merely because she recognizes his power over her–he is a “hostile force who, in a recurrent signifier, ‘stalks’ her poetry like a potential rapist, jeopardizing her creativity and her life itself” (Axelrod 79). Even more than in the obviously father-centric poems, like “Electra on Azalea Path,” “The Beekeeper’s Daughter,” or “Little Fugue,” the father figure recurs as any element, animal, person, or inanimate object that retains the potential to best, dominate, or subdue Plath. Until this point, Plath has been playing and creating in his colossal shadow, or the shadow of predominantly male poets and artists in a long history of patriarchal societies, because she has desired the dependency of a relationship in which she is dominated and submissive.
According to Heather Clark’s The Grief of Influence, Plath became fascinated with violence, domination, and the Nietzchean struggle for power and dominance, claiming that she obsessed over “themes of competition, erotic struggle, and violence” as a student of Smith and Cambridge and, later, as a poet and as wife to poet Ted Hughes (Clark 45). Plath’s submission is generally “proven” by her journal entries that value big, strong men who could dominate and victimize her. Her infamous meeting with Ted Hughes, detailed in her journals, includes her reaction—“such violence, and I can see how women lie down for artists” because he was “the one man in the room who was as big as his poems, huge, with hulk and dynamic chunks of words” (The Unabridged Journals 212). Furthermore, the couple seemed well aware of the publicly-accepted nature of their relationship, renowned for attending a New Year’s Eve costume party as Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf (Clark 45). However, Clark further explains the problem with affirming Plath’s penchant for submission: Plath’s dominating personality and poetic power subverted the feminine stereotype of weakness, frailty, and dependence. Often overlooked in the scene of their meeting is Plath’s own “violence,” as she bites him “hard on the cheek” and wishes to give herself “crashing, fighting” to him (The Unabridged Journals 212).
At the same time, Plath seems to have had a dramatically low threshold for withstanding pain, often conflating physical and emotional pain as a single, tortured experience. Underneath her desire for passion and violence lurked a fear of pain and blood, and of hospitals with which Plath associated the most painful memories of electroshock therapy—of losing control over her body and mind. Red appears throughout Plath’s poetry as an ominous sign of pain and violence that masquerades as bright and cheerful. In “Electra on Azalea Path,” she emphasizes the “artificial red sage” and the “basket of plastic evergreens,” pathetic and paltry attempts at adding brightness and life to an area where an abundance of burdock, an Afro-Eurasian plant whose prickly burrs are large and spiked, underscores the harsh, uninviting natural landscape (23-24). While the plastic may not rot or die, the “rains dissolve a bloody dye,” causing “the ersatz petals” to “drip red”–natural elements dissolving the man-made attempts at creating a pretense of vitality and positivity (26-27). The “redness” of the “ersatz petals” reminds the speaker of “another kind of redness” that “bothers [her],” which she addresses in the penultimate stanza (28). In italics, she references Sophocles’s Electra from the point of view of Agamemnon’s daughter Electra. Pamela A. Smith quotes Stevens’s explication Americans’ poetic tendencies to fuse fiction and reality through violence:
‘It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the
imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems…to have
something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression
of it, the sounds of its words, helps us to live our lives.’ But for Sylvia Plath the
achievement of “a violence from within” was fatal (Smith 337).
She explains that this understanding of internal violence as protection from an external reality does not extend to Plath’s personal, internal violent nature.
Plath claims to have “borrow[ed] the stilts” of Electra’s tragedy because her story truly is not as dramatic as Agamemnon’s (32). She has not rescued her brother from a mother who killed her father and a father who sacrificed her baby sister; however, she identifies closely with the Jungian Electra Complex as a manifestation of her own tragedy that was just as fated or inevitable as Electra’s doom. She has fused reality with fiction in an unproductive, harmful way. Although she desires the rawness and clarity of violence from either herself or an external source, she cannot incorporate it into her life without either being too close or too far from it. Like in “Full Fathom Five,” she dies without the pain as a result of not being challenged creatively and she dies with the pain by allowing masochistic compulsion to consume her life. She seems incapable of moderating her obsessions and unable to distinguish myth from reality.
In her pre-Ariel poetry, Plath walks along the shoreline, struggling creatively as a result of the distance from her subjects that comes from forcing form and content to meld as one rather than allowing her familiar sounds and contemporary, colloquial language to naturally weave images and content together in order to create a full experience and communicate emotion and meaning. In Ariel, however, Plath finally allows her poetry to pour from her, unrestrained by tradition, perhaps most obviously in “Daddy,” the pinnacle of her work and the beginning of the third act of her master-narrative. Plath organizes “Daddy” by images and sounds, with cinquains that return repeatedly to “oo”-vowel assonance, begun with the first lines of the poem: “You do not do, you do not do/any more, black shoe,” and continuing with internal and ending rhymes of the same sound (1-2). The overall effect is of a cooing nursery rhyme, even using words like “gobbledygoo” to emphasize the childlike simplicity; however, juxtaposed with the seemingly simplistic, straightforward language and somewhat-structured rhyme “scheme” is violence.
After setting up an image of submission to the dominant “you” in the first image–the speaker being trapped “like a foot,” “poor and white/Barely daring to breathe or Achoo,” with the father as the “black shoe”–she immediately reverses these roles with the first line of the second stanza: “Daddy, I have had to kill you” (1-6). Then, Plath refers back to the father as “marble-heavy, a bag full of God,” a “Ghastly statue with one gray toe” that evokes the statue image from “The Colossus” (8-9). With her explanation that “Daddy, I have had to kill you./You died before my time” before this reference, however, Plath implies that the roles have been distinctly reversed (6-7). While in “The Colossus” the speaker is realizing that she cannot recover the father figure’s remains, the speaker of Daddy says that she “used to pray to recover you,” with this desire firmly rooted in the past (14). The statue of her father is not beautiful or even colossal in any way–it is only “Ghastly” (9). Similarly, Plath uses the language itself to challenge the father figure’s godlike superiority with “Ach, du,” German for the familiar “Ah, you,” placing herself as his equal (15).
Throughout the poem, Plath jumps from image to image associatively, returning to those that are either contemporary or allude to Nazi Germany in order to emphasize the nature of the speaker’s relationship with this father figure as one in which she is a child and he is the authoritative dictator. The speaker rejects her father, recognizing his oppressive, abusive, Nazi-like behavior, calling his language “obscene” and saying that it is “chuffing [her] off like a Jew,” her perception of him transforming from “a bag full of God” to “a swastika” with a “brute heart”. The speaker no longer focuses on one image of the father figure, whether he be a sea-god, a colossal statue, or a maestro of bees. Although she repeatedly returns to the images that evoke the Holocaust, she also incorporates a variety of the images from her meta-poem, or master narrative, such as the “head in the freakish Atlantic/Where it pours bean green over blue/ In the waters off beautiful Nauset,” the “Ghastly statue with one gray toe/Big as a Friscoe seal,” and the “bag full of God” (8-13). Instead of using an entire poem to fuse a parallel between the oppressive, superior figure and her various images, such as those used in “Full Fathom Five,” “The Colossus,” and “Electra on Azalea Path,” Plath compresses the images to metaphors within only a few lines that are concise, contemporary, and jarring. Rather than restraining her desire for violence, Plath lashes out with simple yet alarming language, vindictively usurping the superior figure by applying the unforgiving title “Nazi” to identify in her mind a cause for rebellion.
In “Daddy,” Plath’s speaker compares her separation from the father figure as that of “a Jew” being sent to “Dachau, Auschiwtz, [and] Belsen,” Nazi concentration camps (33). This imposed relationship of victimizer and victimized results in the speaker “beg[inning] to talk like a Jew,” thinking that she “may well be a Jew,” and, later on, asserting that she “may be a bit of a Jew” (34-35, 40). Her insistence on being a Jew is derived from his, “Luftwaffe, [his] gobbledygoo,” or the terrifying military hold that this “panzer-man” with the “neat moustache” and “Aryan eye, bright blue” has over her. According to his article “The Boot in the Face : The Problem of the Holocaust in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath,” Al Strangeways analyzes the significance of Plath’s use of Nazi and Holocaust imagery, explaining at one point that “the Nazi system express[es] an extreme form of the character structure which we have called ‘authoritarian’” (Strangeways 372). By applying this extreme symbol of authoritarianism as a contrasting, antagonistically superior and harmful dictator to her own relationship with her father figure, Plath’s speaker also suggests some form of dictatorial auteurism imposed upon her.
The master narrative does not merely tell the story of her oppression by an individual, or even the oppression and annihilation of millions of people by National Socialist Party supporters. Paralleled to the world of explicit content, of biography, and of form is the world of Plath’s dampened, restrained creative process and poetic voice that has long been forced to adopt the same mannerisms and techniques of antiquity—of the ebbing and flowing sea god, of the crumbling Colossus, and of the authoritarian Nazi. While Al Strangeways believes that Plath’s approach to the Holocaust lacks depth, seeming to shallowly abuse the image of Nazis and Jews to satisfy her own, selfish desires, claiming that “Rather, Plath combines myth and history (Electra, vampirism, and voodoo rub shoulders with the Holocaust)” in a manner that makes “the history of Nazi persecution of the Jews [appear] almost one- dimensional in comparison to the flexibility of her treatment of the poem’s mythic and psychoanalytic aspects” (Strangeways 378). In actuality, this sequencing of associative images from myth, history, and the modern era emphasizes the emergence of Plath’s strong, independent new voice as, in one fell swoop, she drives a “stake” through the “fat black heart” of the chokingly oppressive pressure to write like her predecessors, completing the second act of her master narrative and simultaneously beginning the third.
As Jahan Ramazani has argued, “Daddy” is a culmination of the internal conflict between “solicitous love” and “dismissive aggression” that destroys the construct of her father as an omnipotent god (1148). With this destruction of the father figure, the speaker in “Daddy” not only rejects sentimentality, but also mimics it with the childlike language for the sole purpose of undermining his dominant role. She juxtaposes the childlike with rage and violence in order to usurp the dead’s aggressive power over her, exorcising all the elements of stereotypically female “connectedness” in order to subvert the “gargantuan,” authoritarian image of him (Ramazani 1151-1153). Her purposeful use of childlike diction only strengthens the transition from dependent child to independent adult.
After the second “O You,” this time in English, as if calling on a perhaps disquieting muse, the tone shifts from fear of the “panzer-man” to a proclamation of the father as “Not God but a swastika/so black no sky could squeak through” (46-47). From this point forward, the description of the father is not merely one of a crumbling, decaying dominator but one of a brutal, evil “Fascist” (48). She describes him as a “brute” with a “brute/Brute heart,” pulling in the image of a “black shoe” from the first stanza with his “boot in the face” of the woman who “adores a Fascist.” Although he lacks a cleft foot, the father is “no less a devil” than another figure–a “black man who/Bit [her] pretty red heart in two” (55-56). The speaker refers to her period of idolizing this father figure as entirely in the past, with “I made a model of you,/A man in black with a Meinkampf look” (64-65). Thus, she recognizes that this “brute” is a creation of her own imagination or memory after having failed to “die/And get back, back, back to you” (59-60). Even though she also created a love of self-torture, she decides that she is “finally through” (68). This proclamation delivers the content of the third act of Plath’s master narrative: she is finally free and independent of the negative influence that has controlled and tortured her.
She is not like the women in “Full Fathom Five,” “Electra on Azalea Path,” or “The Colossus,” who have no power to fully separate themselves from the father figure. Instead, this speaker has “killed two [men]”–the “vampire” who “drank [her] blood for a year/Seven years…” and him (71-74). Because she’s “put a stake in [his] fat black heart,” the speaker is finally victorious (76). When she says “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through,” Plath’s speaker finally distinguishes herself as not only being separate from the two men but also identifies herself as an adult, or at least as having stepped beyond the childlike stage of cooing “oo”s to call him a “bastard” and kill the idolized, glorified “model” so that she can stand alone and independent (80). Similarly, she has created an independent voice for herself.
Only by denying and rejecting the influence of traditional poetic form can Sylvia Plath free herself from the pressure to construct an unattainable poetic voice that belongs only in the patriarchy of antiquity. Although she recognizes and uses traditional allusions and certain traditional poetic conventions, the root of her genius lies in her manipulation of these forms so that they bear new meaning while referencing the tradition itself; consequently, her poetic style demonstrates a flagrant rejection of convention. Her Ariel poems shine with direct, contemporary language and dramatic, associative imagery; however, the true masterpiece of Plath poetic lifetime is not Ariel, nor is it her mythologized biography. Her true masterpiece can be seen only in the master narrative threaded throughout her entire oeuvre, as she embodies modernism not with immediate perfection but with scattered fragments of images and emotions that must be pieced together in a voice that embodies her own culture as separate and distinct from history. As a middle-class American citizen who lives in the period after World War II, Plath cannot turn to the male poets who lived during times of progress and improvement. She develops a violent, harsh, bitingly witty voice that rejects poetic expectations just as she overthrows the oppressive father figure, demonstrating through the process of creating this voice the societal need to construct a new voice for a modern age.
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