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The Sad Story of Romance

ISSUE:  Autumn 1926

There was a time when those of us who dwelt on the banks of the Ohio River or the Mississippi heard the tooting of steamboat whistles and the sing-song of “Annie Laurie,” played with discord and abandon on a steam organ. If we were near enough to the water, and if we were children, we looked down the river to the dazzling white boards of a huge side wheeler that carried red and white streamers marked “Show Boat,” and as like as not, under those banners, paper signs announcing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or probably, “East Lynne.” And if we dwelt inland, where the magic of seeing our theater come splashing around a bend in the river was denied us, we at least had, in summer usually and at Chautauquas or fairs, more splendid, more elaborate versions of the old dramas. Yet, today, most of the children know “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as a rather dreary story that is injected into reading lists at school or presented to them, at special occasions, by Sunday School teachers. Grown-ups, who, we know, used to take the old romances seriously, now smile at “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” putting a book that almost started a war into the class with Ethel M. Dell, or just below. The present “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”—although we are told travelling versions still hit the backwoods towns—now appears in musical comedy as a burlesque with little Eva jazzing her trip to Heaven and Topsy enmeshed in an elaborate Charleston. Something has happened to romance, or at least, to some stories we used to take seriously. Just what takes the power and the tears from things we used to feel were sadly beautiful? It is a question worth an answer.

Romance—and I use the term loosely for writing that is extravagant in action, expression, or emotional resources; that is pitched beyond the factual realities of everyday life —seems to spoil easily. The very weepy book of yesterday too often brings laughter today. Everyone at some time experiences the disquieting feeling of picking up an old novel that he once rated superlative in fine sentiment only to find it gone flat, even a bit silly. It may be “Trilby,” or “The Sorrows of Werther,” or “Jean Christophe,” or “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” or it may he “The Spy,” or “When Knighthood Was in Flower” or “The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come.” (You must make your own list.) The same thing happens with old songs, like “0 Ye Tears” and “What Are the Wild Waves Saying?” and “The Plains of Peace” or old rag-time like “Moonlight Bay.” It makes you wonder, when things like this happen, whether the world is getting old or whether you are; or whether you are merely, today, a keener critic.

Love letters have this common fault of spoiling if they are looked back upon. The comedy in a wife’s reading moonlit lines of twenty years ago when the boy of that time, now fat and a little bald, smokes a vile cigar in the next room, is an ordinary situation for ironic laughter, off stage and on. The worst of it is that the irony is real and makes even true love seem absurd. The blatant letters of the front page divorce records are horrible and inane to a greater degree because the pitiless type and the bloodlessness of legality shrivel every vestige of sentiment. Indeed, love itself is a thing of the evening and impermanent illusion; it is hard to think of great passion combined with daylight.

So far, my romantic examples have been of an obvious sort, the kind in which deeds, tears, or sighs are an end in themselves, although “Jean Christophe” and “Werther” must, in some judgments, be beyond mere primary romance. But even greater things lose their glory in a similar way if not so soon or in so great measure. Sir Walter Scott, sensitive writer that he was, susceptible to the truly pictorial and the judiciously dramatic, able to tell a story of action and order, cannot save himself today from comparative neglect because, with the possible exception of “Ivanhoe,” he seems to us to have lived in a world that resembles nothing so much as a cardboard moving picture set for “Robin Hood.” We cannot feel, inside us, that what his knights and serfs do is real or ever was. The fault may lie with us; or it may be that Walter Scott was too ardent for romance and so let his books protest too much. Even Milton, with the somber thrill of Hell and his charges of heavenly armies, leaves most of us today only academically interested; I am assured by most young people who read him that the mystic, churchly ecstasy of living under the shadow of angelic rebellion does not come often. The organ roll of his lines remains without the awe that organ music ought to bring. Byron, we are beginning to see, erred on the side of too much self yearning; our modern Byron of Barrington’s “Glorious Apollo” would have been, I think, heresy among the young people of fifty years ago—among the bohemians, at least. Yet, today’s romantics have not rallied to the support of Byron or his poetry or to the attack upon the unfeeling Barrington. Indeed, with the exception of those lovely lyrics, potent and yet restrained to sincerity, like “She walks in beauty,” and “O, talk not to me of a name great in story,” and “There be none of Beauty’s daughters,” Byron’s white heat has cooled to an ashy red, especially if we read “Childe Harold” or “Don Juan” too long. These illustrations, like the earlier ones, may be too personal in their origin to prove the point. Yet I think it not improbable that from the great names in English letters most of us could make our own corresponding catalog.

The reaction against extravagant manners extends to other things besides writing. The sky line of New York in 1950 will contain few Gothic roofs or spires, we are told by architects. Our new vision of beauty is a matter of merging planes, and angles, geometric subtleties; doubts about gargoyle rain spouts and twisted carvings assail us, just as, to a lesser degree, the elaborateness of the uncouth American mansard house gave way to more simplicity in modern home design. We laugh at bulging bay windows and curved towers, and countless brackets at the eaves. Our inspiration takes us on to new forms, and the old seem cheap where they once were praised. Like old fashioned American architecture—falsely grand and noisy in the 1850’s—old fashioned American oratory and rhetoric of the stage is now used only for burlesque or by Tammany vote getters who should know better and do. It is hard to imagine a serious speech in Senate starting off with something like Clay’s or Webster’s or Calhoun’s oratory. It is not that the earlier style is wrong, but it is true that it is used today only as a second rate manner; that is to say, it is not the style of a Wilson or even of a Page.

To carry the idea further, an illustration from books applies. Sir Walter Scott once wrote an introduction for Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto,” and prefixed this note:

The applause due to chastity and precision of style, to a happy combination of supernatural agency with human interest, to a tone of feudal manners and language, sustained by characters strongly drawn and well discriminated, and to unity of action producing scenes alternately of interest and of grandeur—the applause, in fine, which cannot be denied to him who can excite the passions of fear and of pity, must be awarded to the author of “The Castle of Otranto.”

And the modern editor of the volume, Caroline Spurgeon, adds our present day comment to Scott’s.

“The Castle of Otranto” today no longer thrills or awes its reader, nor does it excite in his breast, as it did in Scott’s, the emotions of pity and fear; far less does it cause him, as it did Gray and his fellow dons at Cambridge, “to cry a little” and to be “afraid to go to bed o’ nights.”

So the golden bowl of romance is broken. But it is never really broken, after all, for as the romantic book or music of one generation begins to wear thin and appear ridiculous, another book and more music, filled full of the wonder of fife or the sadness of it, come to take their hold upon men’s hearts. For man is incurably romantic, and he must dream and sing himself twilight songs to keep his hope of God high and a meaning for life before him. “Jean Christophe” and “Trilby” are followed by “Moon Calf and “Cytherea”; Spenser trails the old romancers; Handel comes in the age of Wordsworth, and, later, in a different key, come Brahms and Schumann and even Strauss. Morris follows Wordsworth, and so the story goes. The romantic work may lose its once widespread potency (although merit may still remain) , but romance lives even through periods of the direst factuality and sordid attention to the physical basis of existence. Indeed, romance, crushed to earth, is a little like truth in the proverb. When hid for long—as it was in the eighteenth century—romantic expression blazes forth suddenly with all the more intensity; although, it is true, with a rank abundance that means bombast as in some of the early Gothic novels. Witness “Vathek” and “Otranto” and “Udolpho.” Alongside of the bad writing that dies soon, come the greater works of the romantic spirit, that last longer and touch men so deeply that, before they die as romances do, they have given life and potency to new books and new writers of a coming age—all romantic and young and singing new songs for their age. This is the eternity of romance and the tragedy of it; for beauty of this sort seems like the charm of a very lovely woman, perfect but easily destroyed, much more easily marred by time and change than the solider qualities of good sense and virtue and honesty—things necessary but free from heart-aches or blinding joy. In this view of romance as a thing made easily laughable, we must recognize above all the worth of romance and its better and worse forms, the one dying fast as it ought, and the other lasting and passing on its spirit if not its material to the great body of books we call literature.

There is another note to be made here. The word “extravagant” has unfortunate connotations that ought to be guarded against, before we go on to consider the reasons that romantic art is so often comic where it wants to be serious. Men who are English by nature or training readily join extravagance with vulgarity, although the two are by no means the same. To be sure, extravagance is often vulgar, but it need not be so. There are times when extravagant expression is the normal outlet of strong emotion or tumultuous feeling, and at some moment of supercharged impulses, extravagance is as natural as restraint at another time. Ascetic austerity is not in itself commendatory; other peoples like the Latins, have found the joy of being expressive, and so they have had the greater and better romances in the past because their love stories and romantic tragedies have not been so self conscious. This applies to the French spirit at the time of Chretien de Troyes as well. The Englishman, taking a story like any of Boccaccio’s, is inclined to tame it. In art, extravagance has more than one form also. Early baroque art is extravagant but honest; the later rococo is extravagant and bad. The ornateness of a Gothic facade is as easy and expected as the mystic zeal that put it up; the wood scroll work on an American summer hotel can never be anything but ugly. Or to go back to poetry, the eccentricities and extravagance of John Donne are the fervor of the man’s spirit expressed in verse, but in later of the metaphysicals, John Donne’s genius for the ornate becomes mere metrical geometry. Extravagance, then, is no condemnatory judgment on romantic art; to say a thing is extravagant is merely to recognize a quality, good or bad, that enters into romantic creation.

In looking back, as we have done, at old plays and songs and novels, we are faced with the realization that romance, good or bad, tends to the comic instead of to the exalted or tragic. Mr. Aldous Huxley, in “Those Barren Leaves” has his Mr. Cardan express this same idea.

 . . . “I demand from my art the added luxury of being moved. And, somehow, one can’t feel emotion about anything so furiously and consciously emotional. . . . It’s not by making wild and passionate gestures that an artist can awake emotion in the spectator. It isn’t done that way. . . . That is why good romantic art is so rare. Romanticism . . . makes violent gestures; it relies on . . . stage effects: it is ambitious to present you with emotion in the raw and palpitating form. That is to say, the romantic style is in essence a comic style. . . . Even writers of a great and genuine talent were betrayed by the essentially comic nature of a style into being farcical when they meant to be romantically tragical.”

How does it happen, then, that the romantic book fails in what it tries to do? Why does romance spoil?

Romantic art often demands more emotional expenditure than the moment is honestly worth; at such times the reader simply refuses to match his posturing with the author’s and laughs instead. Then the reader is like a boy in a school play, who knows he ought to be acting in the grand manner of the infant George Washington but makes faces instead, turning drama to farce and so saving his natural self. Whatever virtue lies in the much praised “classical restraint” is in the reticence with which normal feeling is portrayed. Then, whenever “extravagance” is demanded, even classic works like “Prometheus Bound” give way to lyric rapture, but by the time the surge of high tension poetry comes, we are convinced by the previous restraint that the glow of words and passion is inevitable. We are convinced of the authenticity of the moment. The romantic, on the other hand, gets illuminations and ecstasies over almost anything, and by too much rapture ruins his “seeing into the life of things” and so becomes an enthusiast. It is not only in naming your emotion or in gesturing that romance grows comic—as Huxley suggests—but it is in gesturing too often or becoming too receptive to emotional stimuli. Wordsworth, for example, has his troubles in making us sympathetic to his thought whenever he finds too many flowers, too many thoughts that lie too deep for tears.

Romance, moreover, must ask this high emotionality because of its very nature. It is impossible to keep a mood for long, and romance is a matter of mood, a high strung emotional attitude towards experience. This is a corollary proposition to the previous comment and a second reason for the unconscious comedy in romance. This romantic mood is with difficulty built up and with ease broken down into its caricature, “romanticizing,” a burlesque of the real mood, and hence, comedy. A mood that stays too long with us is insanity, emotional intensity without rational intermission. This is to say, good romance, full of extraordinary emotional material because of the poetic mood it tries to give, must be short to save itself. The only alternative is a romance pitched to insanity, a world of violent, ruthless feeling with no let up until physical exhaustion is reached in the writer or reader, but that, fortunately, is not the world of sane men. A good romance, then, must be built on material that is believably the stuff for a poetic mood (you cannot write great romance about a dead fly); it must be pitched to the mood with audacity and skill; and being done, must stop before the mood or the reader fails. Long romance is impossible without breathing spaces. Romance is like courtship in a love affair: marriage finishes the sentimentalized love making as it must; for the continued stress of living on an exalted plane would be devastating to the more rational happiness that ought to follow.

A mood, to develop this idea more fully, demands delicate technique and extreme sensibility in both the writer and the reader, if the result is to be the opening of magic casements and not just the banging of medieval shutters. A grandiose style like Walpole’s will render impotent whatever figment of reality lies hidden under the writing. This is to say: inflation, bad writing, poor style—authors’ defects—are the first cause for romance that turns comic. To say all this is nothing new. Another idea needs to be added, in fairness to men like Walpole and Scott: styles change and the approved diction of one age becomes the burlesque style of another. This is something the writer cannot help; he is forced by the fact of living to accept the style his age presents. The romance, in reference to style changes, is unusually unfortunate in comparison to other types of writing. Needing all the literary resources of the writer and his age in order to give its delicate mood facility, it gathers to itself a maximum of stylistic excesses and eccentricities. So it is that a romantic book goes out of date more quickly than its more restrained and conventional contemporary. To be fully aware of the splash of effects in romance, a good way is to compare the social novels of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the Gothic novels of the same period. Compare, for example, Fanny Burney with Mrs. Radcliffe; Jane Austen with Walter Scott. We are not so far away, today, from the style of the early novel of manners, but even our present day romances are far removed from the style of a Walpole or a Radcliffe.

On the other hand, the failure of a romance may lie with the reader. He may be removed from the writer, the theme, or the age, and may lose the peculiar charm of the book he is reading because he is not honestly striving to adjust himself to the book or to the variations in style that years bring. Most of us have had the misfortune to hear a book we like read aloud by a derisive clown who makes everything beautiful seem silly through his own signal depravity. Most of us, too, approximate such ridicule by picking up any old book of fifty years ago with a condescending smile.

Contemporaries, for this reason, are always the most easily satisfied. They are caught by the immediacy of the materials; they find themselves or their town or their peculiar dreams put into print. They are flattered. They think as the author thinks. They have the same enthusiasms as the writer. Consider the ease with which mediocre plays of the South Seas have received praise for no other reason but that our age is in love with tropical glamour. Yet the plays have, for the most part, been cheaply done, theatrical, and sometimes, sensually depraved. They were romances, however, written in our own beloved style and with our own favorite themes. That they will be given serious consideration in an age that has wearied of the tropics or knows the tropics is hard to believe.

But romance that does not turn comic must be more than adequate in style. Two examples are of use here. First, to grow maudlin over the jingles your ten year old child may compose in rhyming moments is funny and irritating to your neighbors; that is, you become comic and the neighbors grow justly irritated, for they recognize that the jingles are only child songs that almost any parent discovers, and judged from a point of view free from parental adoration, are wretched poetry. This is to say, romance must have a theme that must rank high in the scale of emotional verities, even when viewed dispassionately. Great romance cannot be written over a triviality, no matter how much we love a trivial thing. Second—to go back to the love letters that were used as an illustration—if the man who wrote them lives, and grows old and comfortable, and above all, marries the woman to whom he wrote them, the woman usually laughs and the man may, too, as he reads them over. But if the man married someone else, or if he died, or if the woman died—in short, if the dream of the letters remained a dream and the man forever young, then those letters are romantic and beautiful, no matter if, under the varying circumstances, the man lived, or grew old and fat, or if the woman lived and married someone else. Romance seems to be stable and powerful and free from comic disintegration when the ideal is beyond, a vision not achieved. This is the lesson that Christopher Marlowe learned early, something that fife does not always teach to poets. We must have, in great romance, mystic, supernatural overtones based in fundamental human experience, and not Poe-esque eccentricities or colorful abnormality, although Poe, it must be said, exhibits the power of genius plus style to save improbabilities from becoming ridiculous. All this is to say that it is humanly right to be romantic; the important thing is to be romantic in the right way.

Thomas Lovell Beddoes is a good romantic to use here as illustration, for he combines the two kinds of romance in himself. He is often straining too much and makes his poetry comic, but at other times he takes honest themes and gives them poetic form in which they reach high poetry; they endure.

Here is “The Old Ghost” in which Beddoes just misses his effect because he tried so hard to be archaically melancholy, and because ghosts in this predicament are not close to genuine human experience, even imaginatively.

Over the water an old ghost strode
 To a churchyard on the shore,
And over him the waters had flowed
 A thousand years or more,
And pale and wan and weary
 Looked never a sprite as he;
For it’s lonely and it’s dreary
 The ghost of a body to be
That has mouldered away in the sea.

Over the billows the old ghost stepped,
 And the winds in mockery sung;
For the bodiless ghost would fain have wept
 Over the maiden that lay so young
’Mong the thistles and toadstools so hoary.
 And he begged of the waves a tear,
But they shook upwards their moonlight glory,
 And the shark looked on with a sneer
At his yearning desire and agony.

Against this moonlit poem with its sneering shark ought to be placed Beddoes’ well known “Dream-Pedlary.” The age has not yet come when this romantic theme is laughable.


If there were dreams to sell,
 What would you buy?
Some cost a passing bell;
 Some a light sigh,
That shakes from Life’s fresh crown
 Only a rose leaf down.
If there were dreams to sell,
Merry and sad to tell,
And the crier rung the bell,
 What would you buy?


A cottage lone and still,
 With bowers nigh,
Shadowy, my woes to still,
 Until I die.
Such pearl from Life’s fresh crown
Fain would I shake me down.
Were dreams to have at will,
This would best heal my ill,
 This wold I buy.


But there were dreams to sell
 Ill didst thou buy;
Life is a dream, they tell,
 Waking to die.
Dreaming a dream to prize,
Is wishing ghosts to rise;
And if I had the spell
To call the buried well,
 Which one would I ?


If there are ghosts to raise,
 What shall I call,
Out of hell’s murky haze,
 Heaven’s blue pall?
Raise my loved long-lost boy
To lead me to his joy.—
There are no ghosts to raise;
Out of death lead no ways;
 Vain is the call.


Know’st thou not ghosts to sue
 No love thou hast.
Else lie, as I will do,
 And breathe thy last.
So out of Life’s fresh crown
Fall like a rose leaf down.
Thus are the ghosts to woo;
Thus are all dreams made true,
 Ever to last!

When we look back at the romance that has gone, and when we look ahead at what comes to us new each year, romance appears eternal despite its comedy. The reason for romantic art and its strength every few decades seems to be that a spiritual escape from reality, like the escape that religion tries to give on an ethical plane, must be had at all cost, sometimes, even, at the cost of good writing, presentable themes, and common sense. It is a fortunate writer who can give wings to his spirit, dream beautiful dreams, and yet be giving us the truth about men and women, transmuted truth, instead of mere fairy tales. That is the way to great romance, and explains why Shelley fails us at times and why Keats to this day seems not to have lost his exquisite charm. This means, of course, that great romance is a rare thing, a much rarer thing than the literature of detail, for it takes less art to report life than it does to catch the spiritual flavor of living. On the other hand, the path of the romancer is more often a rosy one in his own age than is the path of the realist, for each age is so eager for liberation from its factual world that it welcomes any contemporary who pictures mooniight and lovely women. This, let me say, is usually true, although it must be admitted that there come periods like the one we have just passed through, when the world gets romantic about dirt and loves squalor and is afraid of dreams. Happily for the beauty of books, such times come seldom.

Our present romantic novels and poetry are an example of escape from too much living. In February, 1921, Carl Van Doren said this about American fiction: . . . coincident with the imperialistic excitement of the Spanish War, came a brief reaction towards romance-rococo and prolific. During those same years there likewise began the discontent with romance and reticence from which springs the tendency of naturalism now current. Mr. Van Doren could not have said “the tendency of naturalism now current” of the autumn months of 1925. Something has happened to writers and readers since 1921, and the new wave in books is romance again. Witness books like “Sea Horses,” “Cold Harbor,” “Ordeal,” “The Rector of Maliseet,” “Sard Harker,” “The Professor’s House,” “The Perennial Bachelor,” and “Race.” The mid-western screen door and stable literature has about worn down our endurance of the ugly, and we are again writing and reading to find new beauties, new places, and new people. Too much affirmation that life is real, that life is a nasty trap, has made some of us deny the affirmation, because some of us have tasted life and found it good.

So it happens that, half in defiance, we are praising our romancers as indiscriminately as earlier ages praised theirs; any book advertisements in the weekly book review journals will prove this. We are suddenly, and rather wholesomely, in love with romance. As a result we are saying unwise things in favor of our own brand of dreams. That makes it all very hard to keep a critical balance and to know what of our new literature is honestly romantic in the best sense and what is absurdity. Some day someone may be quoting from the novels of these years and saying how ridiculously childlike these twentieth century readers were. It is wholly conceivable that an age like Pope’s may come again, when rationality and severe restraint will prevail and the whole romantic tradition from Wordsworth to Masefield will be viewed with the same incredulous dislike with which we generally have regarded the age of Shaftesbury and the “Essay on Man.” Mr. Mencken, for example, is already so far removed from religious romance as Dante writes it that he cannot understand the “Inferno” except as a gigantic satire. If not a satire, asks Mr. Mencken, why did Dante call his work a comedy? So the old landmarks of romance fade.

What will remain as great romantic art? What romance will not degenerate into unintended comedy? These are, to me, the most absorbing of literary speculations. The sad and checkered history of romance has made prophecy dangerous.

Two books I have come upon lately seem to me to have the essential qualities of enduring romance; they combine poetic vision with a fundamental soundness in what they say of life and men and human emotions. They are in no sense “best” books, but I feel that they are well written beyond most. There is a beautiful passage in Virginia Wolff’s “Mrs. Dalloway.”

For they might be parted for hundreds of years, she and Peter; she never wrote a letter and his were dry sticks; but suddenly it would come over her, If he were with me now what would he say?—some days, some sights bringing him back to her calmly, without the old bitterness; which perhaps was the reward of having cared for people; they came back in the middle of St. James’s Park on a fine morning—indeed they did.

At the very end of Mr. H. M. Tomlinson’s “Tide Marks” a passage of description of his journey’s end can stand almost as an epitome of English romance—of what it is built on and of what it hopes to be.

We got under way again, and night fell on the coast and sank at last over all the waters. Leaning on the bulwarks and gazing landward, I could just make out a deeper shadow athwart the seas of night, formless under the faint glimmer in the meridian. It had no bounds. It was immense and intangible. Looking at it, I felt an awakening of understanding. I felt the inward glow of a new and deep desire. I cannot tell you what the shadow was, for though tran-scendently it was there, it was dim and mysterious, almost beyond vision; England! That shadow was the indenture on the very stars of an old grandeur, the memory impressed on night itself, blurred but indelible, of an ancient renown. It was the emanation of an idea too great for us to know; the dimmering through the gloom to me in my isolation and misgivings of wonderful things almost forgotten, of the dreams and exaltations of splendid youth, of the fidelity of comrades, of noble achievements, of our long-past intimate sorrows, of precious things unspoken but understood, of our dead. No. Not even old night could hide that presence. It was indefinable, majestic, severe and still. And it may have been resigned and communing, its age-long work done, in the fall of a darkness which it knew to be ultimate. Or it may have been retired within the night, dominant on its seas, making no sign, knowing the supreme test of all its labors was at hand, vigilant but composed, waiting for another morning to dawn in the hearts of men, when there should be light to build the City of God.

Perhaps the truth is that dreams are best kept as dreams, within the heart of the man who sees beautiful pictures that never can quite come true. Romance, on its highest level, lies almost beyond the realm of speech. Like the vision that the prophet gets and cannot convey to a stolid world without ridicule, so the man of letters who finds in his mind perfect love or beauty cannot often reveal his inner self without laughter from those wrho hear him. Sometimes the writer fails in words that ought to be as beautiful as his thoughts, and are not; sometimes the vulgarity of the men he writes for marks him for disaster; sometimes the glare of the sun is too bright for that which is conceived in moonlight.

Indeed, the romancer must be a courageous man. It has always been dangerous to affirm the charm of living to men who are caught in the tediousness that life brings. Better, says the beautiful thing of a man’s mind, that beauty be for one man alone, for secret contemplation. Yet, at times, the compulsion to share dreams becomes too strong even for the sagacity that warns the writer he will be laughed at. When that happens, if the moment is right, and the writer is caught by the vision of rare things, and words come as they ought, we have great romantic art, something that charms men and women into a spiritual understanding of themselves. And then it is that no one ever laughs.


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