International Journal of the Classical Tradition

, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 236–256 | Cite as

Classical texts in post-colonial literatures: Consolation, redress and new beginnings in the work of Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney

  • Lorna Hardwick


This article examines the ambivalent relationships between classical texts and post-colonial literatures in English, with special reference to the work of Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney. It is argued that analysis of the formal, discursive and contextual relationships between ancient and modern in poetry and drama reveals significant correspondences as well as important differences between the literary and political role of the Classical Tradition in Caribbean and Irish writing. These can be revealed and explained by the writers' balance between ideas of consolation, redress and new beginnings. This in turn opens the way to re-assessment of some of the models of appropriation, creativity and dialogue which have been used in recent research into both Reception Studies and Post-Colonial Literatures.


Classical Tradition Classical Text Nobel Lecture Greek Tragedy African Diaspora 
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  1. 1.
    This article arises from my research project, now in progress at the Open University, UK. The project investigates the reception of the texts and images of ancient Greece in late twentieth-century drama and poetry in English. A database of examples is being prepared and the pilot version can be accessed at Part of the work of the project is to prepare case-studies which analyse closely the formal, discursive and contextual relationships between ancient and modern texts. From this basis it is then possible to relate the detailed textual work to broader literary and cultural issues. A shorter version of this paper was given at the Fourth Meeting of the International Society for the Classical Tradition at the University of Tübingen, July 1998. I am grateful to the participants for their comments and suggestions. I also thank Dr. Stephen Regan, the anony-mous readers for theIJCT and the Editor, Professor Wolfgang Haase, for constructive advice.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Sunday Times, 26/7/98.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    References are to the following editions: Derek Walcott,Omeros, London: Faber and Faber, 1990 and Seamus Heaney,The Cure at Troy: A version of Sophocles' Philoctetes, London: Faber and Faber, 1990.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    For discussion of the force of colonialism as a constraint on mind and thought both before and after independence, see especially Ngúgíwa, Thiong'o,Decolonising the Mind, ser. Books in African Studies, Oxford: James Currey with EAEP, Nairobi, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1986, andMoving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom, Studies in African Literature, New Series, Oxford: James Currey with EAEP, Nairobi, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1993. The implications for classical texts are discussed by Lorna Hardwick, “Greek Drama and Anti-colonialism: Decolonising Classics’, in: Edith Hall, Fiona Macintosh and Amanda Wrigley (eds.),Dionysus Since'69, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004 (forthcoming)Google Scholar
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    Derek Walcott, ‘The Muse of History’, in: Edward Baugh (ed.),Critics on Caribbean Literature, Readings in literary criticism 19, London and Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1978, pp. 38–43: p. 39.Google Scholar
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    Derek Walcott, ‘What the Twilight says: an ouverture’, in: Walcott,Dream on Monkey Mountain, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970, p. 18.Google Scholar
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    Seamus Heaney,The Redress of Poetry, Oxford Lectures 1989–1994, London: Faber and Faber, 1995, p. 4.Google Scholar
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    Quoted by William Baer, ‘An interview with Derek Walcott (1993)’ in: William Baer (ed.),Conversations with Derek Walcott, Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1996, pp. 202–3.Google Scholar
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    Seamus Heaney,The Government of the Tongue, London: Faber and Faber, 1988, p. 92.Google Scholar
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    Seamus Heaney ‘Crediting Poetry’, in: Heaney,Opened Ground, London: Faber & Faber, 1998, pp. 445–467: p. 467.Google Scholar
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    Seamus Heaney,The Redress of Poetry, p. 2, ‘[Engaged parties] … will always want the redress of poetry to be an exercise of leverage on behalf oftheir point of view; they will require the entire weight of the thing to come down on their side of the scales’.Google Scholar
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    Discussed in relation to Walcott'sThe Odyssey: A Stage Version in Lorna Hardwick, ‘Reception as Simile: The Poetics of Reversal in Homer and Derek Walcott’,International Journal of the Classical Tradition (IJCT) 3, 1996/97, pp. 326–338, especially pp. 332f.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    The origins and application of the notion ‘post-colonial’ are discussed in Dennis Walder,Post-colonial Literatures in English: History, Language, Theory, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998, Ch. 1, especially pp. 1–6. For discussion of the resistance of writers to the imposition by critics of terms like ‘post-colonial’ see Walder, Ch. 8.Google Scholar
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    Walcott's development of this aspect is discussed by Patricia Ismond,Abandoning Dead Metaphors: The Caribbean Phase of Derek Walcott's Poetry, Barbados: University of the West Indies Press, 2001.Google Scholar
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    Kai Merten has explored the impact of classical education on the consciousness of both the colonised and the working class poet in a paper to the Fourth Meeting of the International Society for the Classical Tradition, Tübingen, July 1998, ‘“Scholarship boy” and “Divided Child”: the role of the Classics in the “poetry of initiation” of Derek Walcott and Tony Harrison’. I am grateful to Dr. Merten for allowing me to consult his paper and for subsequent discussion. The relationship between classical texts and diaspora was considered in Lorna Hardwick, “A Daedalus in the late-modern age? Transplanting Homer into Derek Walcott'sThe Odyssey: A Stage Version’, in: Lorna Hardwick and Stanley Ireland (eds.),Selected Proceedings of the January Conference 1996; The Reception of Texts and Images, Milton Keynes: Open University, 1996, pp. 232–252, and Scholar
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    Declan Kiberd has demonstrated the importance of the English language as an anti-colonial mechanism: ‘One of the great paradoxes of nineteenth-century history is that English became the language of Irish separatism, the medium in which the nationalist case was put’ (Kiberd, ‘Romantic Ireland's dead and gone’, lecture delivered at the Collège des Irlandais, Paris, April 29, 1998, reprinted in edited form inThe Times Literary Supplement, 12 June 1998, pp. 12–14). The same might be true in other colonial situations and the key issue then becomes the ways in which the language itself is refigured by its role in the process of decolonisation.Google Scholar
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    Walder,, p. 6.Google Scholar
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    Walcott, ‘What the Twilight says’, p. 4. More ironic aspects of colonial education are discussed in Tejumola Olaniyan,Scars of Conquest/Masks of Resistance, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995—for example in the references to the singing of ‘Britannia Rules the Waves… Britons never, never, never will be slaves’, pp. 94–95.Google Scholar
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    This approximates to the literary equivalent of the ‘double consciousness’ explored by cultural critics in the contexts of African diaspora communities. The process of political engagement has been said to be threefold. The first stage was self-emancipation from slavery; the second, the achievement of civic participation (fulfilment). Thirdly came the creation of autonomous space in which to develop politically and culturally (transfiguration). The term double consciousness recognises tension between on the one hand the emancipation and fulfilment shaped by the experiences of the colonised past and on the other hand the creation of a cultural process and identity which is not so bounded. For analysis of double consciousness, see Paul Gilroy,The Black Atlantic, London and New York: Verso, 1993, (Ch. 4 discusses the influence of W.E.B. DuBois).Google Scholar
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    David L. Pike,Passage Through Hell: Modernist Descents, Medieval Underworlds, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997, Ch. 1 (On Pike's book cf. the review by Constance Bouchard,IJCT 7, 2000/01, pp. 289–291.)Google Scholar
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    James McCorkle, ‘Remapping the new world: the recent poetry of Derek Walcott’,Ariel 17, 1986, pp. 3–14, explores the dual resonance when this image is applied also to African customs lost during the slave trade (p. 9).Google Scholar
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    For discussion of the multiple resonances of the figure of Philoctetes and the treatment of Philoctete by Walcott, see Lorna Hardwick,Translating Words, Translating Cultures, London: Duckworth, 2000, Ch. 6.Google Scholar
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    See Pike, p. 6f. Walcott's exploitation ofterza rima inOmeros is another means of suggesting Dante's voice.Google Scholar
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    Pike,, p. 258.Google Scholar
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    For discussion of the utility of the term ‘great poem’ rather than epic to cover the tradition which includes theIliad, theOdyssey, theAeneid, Paradise Lost, and theDivine Comedy see Richard Jenkyns, ‘Unconscious Classical Sources of theDivine Comedy, IJCT 4, 1997/98, pp. 23–26, especially pp. 23–24.Omeros might well be added to the list. Walcott's refiguration of epic has been addressed by T.P. Hofmeister, ‘Iconoclasm, Elegy and Epiphany: Derek Walcott contemplating the bust of Homer’,IJCT 1.1, Summer 1994, pp. 107–128, and ‘The Wolf and the Hare: Epic Expansion and Contextualisation in Derek Walcott'sOmeros', IJCT 2, 1995/96, pp. 536–554.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Derek Walcott,The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory. The Nobel Lecture, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993, p. 30.Google Scholar
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    For example, Robert D. Hamner,Derek Walcott, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981, and Rei Terada,Derek Walcott's Poetry: American Mimicry, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993.Google Scholar
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    A comment by Helen Vendler, quoted and discussed in Paula Burnet,Derek Walcott: Politics and Poetics, Miami: University Press of Florida, 2001, p. 176.Google Scholar
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    Seamus Heaney, ‘The Murmur of Malvern’, in: Heaney,The Government of the Tongue, London: Faber, 1988, p. 29.Google Scholar
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    Derek Walcott, ‘The Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry?’,Journal of Inter-American Studies and World Affairs 16, 1974, pp. 3–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Walcott,, p. 5.Google Scholar
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    Walcott,, p. 10Google Scholar
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    See, for example,Another Life, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973, Ch. 19 (p. 127, lines 13–15: ‘those…who chafe and nurture the scars of rusted chains,/like primates favouring scabs’), and ‘The Muse of History’ (above, n. 5), Derek Walcott, ‘The Muse of History’, in Edward Baugh (ed.),Critics on Carib Bean Literature, Readings in literary criticism 19, London and Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1978, pp. 38–43; passim.Google Scholar
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    Hamner, op. cit., p. 105. The narratological techniques associated with the poet's voice inOmeros have been interpreted as indicative of Walcott's personal Odyssey and his return to St Lucia. See Helen Kaufmann, ‘Odysseus’ Rückkehr nach St. Lucia: Der Erzähler in D. Walcott's Omeros', in: Manuel Baumbach (ed.),Tradita et Inventa: Beiträge zur Rezeption der Antike, Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 2000, pp. 615–628.Google Scholar
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    Another Life Ch. 16, pp. 104–106, discussed in Hamner,op. cit. (above, n. 35),Derek Walcott, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981 p. 98f.Google Scholar
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    Discussed in Hoegberg, op. cit., pp. 68.Google Scholar
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    For discussion of the impact of Greek source texts on modern Interventionist theatre and poetry from Heiner Müller to Tony Harrison, see Hardwick,Translating Words, Ch. 6. chapter 4. Chapter 5 of the same work considers broader aspects of the Classical Tradition in Ireland.Google Scholar
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    Some critics have advanced the view that cultures do have within them periods of fracture and cleavage, even to the point of trauma. The test of a culture is then whether and how it can survive and even derive strength from these. This is highly relevant to the issue under discussion here. For detailed discussion, see Robert Welch,Changing States: Transformations in modern Irish Writing London and New York: Routledge, 1993, passim, especially pp. 1–8.Google Scholar
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    Seamus Deane, General introduction to Deane (ed.),The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Derry: Field Day Publications, 1991, p. xx.Google Scholar
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    Both are included in Thomas Kinsella (ed.),The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, no. 152, p. 218.Google Scholar
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    Neil Corcoran,After Yeats and Joyce: Reading Modern Irish Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 5–6).Google Scholar
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    Declan Kiberd,Inventing Ireland, London: Jonathan Cape, 1995, p. 625.Google Scholar
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    Quoted by W.B. Standford,Ireland and the Classical Tradition, Dublin: Allen Figgis and Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman & Littlefield, 1976, p. 27.Google Scholar
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    Although classical literature in Irish translation dates from the Middle Irish period, there is also evidence from the writings of St. Columbanus that Latin authors were being read in Ireland from the sixth century. The earliest extant translations are from the tenth century, and theAeneid was translated into prose in the twelfth century. The translators were anonymous and were probably members of monastic communities. Some scholars have traced links between the choice of texts and style of translation and the Irish hero tales. See Stanford,.Google Scholar
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    For discussion of Friel's use of historical evidence, see Sean Connolly, Translating History: Brian Friel and the Irish Past' pp. 149–163 in: Alan Peacock (ed.),The Achievement of Brian Friel, Gerrard's Cross: Colin Smythe, 1993. The persistence into the present time of the image of the hedge schools and the invocation of Socratic parallels can be seen in Desmond O'Grady's poem ‘Lines in a Roman Schoolbook’: ‘when hedge school masters… kept alive/ the way of life that's ours by conversation just as that other hedge-school master talked/in his muddled market place under the Attic sun/and paid the price extorted’, in: Peter Fallon and Derek Mahon (eds.),The Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990, p. 126. Declan Kibberd has summarized the cultural and political impact of the hedge schools: ‘In one sense, Ireland had no need of a romantic movement, for the English intervention had ensured that those who defended classical ideals would also be the rebels, the anarchists, the dissidents’, Introduction to Marianne McDonald and J. Michael Walton (eds.),Amid Our Troubles: Irish Versions of Greek Tragedy, London: Methuen, 2002, p. xii–xiii.Google Scholar
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    In spite of its poor critical reception, the revival demonstrates the status of the play as part of the modern canon. See Marianne McDonald'sDidaskalia review, In 1999 the play was also performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and at Ohe Oxford Playhouse (both directed by Helen Eastman). In these productions the opening set depicted a debate in a student bar. Further details of this production may be accessed onThe Reception of the texts and Images of Ancient Greece in Late Twentieth-Century Drama and Poetry in English Database: Studies/ GreekPlays.Google Scholar
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    T. Eagleton,News from Nowhere 9, 1991, pp. 93–95, reprinted in: S. Regan (ed.),The Eagleton Reader, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998, pp. 374–377. The tone recalls Heaney's joke about an alternative title for the play, ‘Ulcer says No’. It is worth pointing out, however, that other contexts might suggest different readings of the situation of the alienated Philoctetes. A Belfast staging of Sophocles’Philoctetes in 1933 featured twenty one unemployed workers and was performed at Queen's University as part of a plan to provide ‘instruction and reacreation’ (sic) for the unemployed and to raise money for textbooks for the 1,400 unemployed who were taking courses in subjects ranging from English and Latin to shorthand (The Times 21 April 1933).Google Scholar
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    Heaney's words are quoted by Steve E. Wilmer, ‘Seamus Heaney and the Tragedy of Stasis’, in: Patsalidis and Sakellaridou (eds.), More recently, Heaney has emphasized that the discourse and idiom of the Chorus does not restrict the resonances to the situation in the North of Ireland and that the speeches ‘defend the right of poetry/poetic drama to be something other than protest’, Heaney, ‘The Cure at Troy: Production Notes’ (above, n. 65), from Sophocles in order to intensify the ethical issues, Deane, ‘Field Day's Greeks (and Russian))’, p. 173. In discussing the translation of the Chorus Odes into American idiom, Heaney also refers to a reading directed by Derek Walcott in New York in 1993 ibid., from Sophocles in order to intensify the ethical issues, Deane, ‘Field Day's Greeks (and Russians)’,p. 174, 180).Google Scholar
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    The Greek text and the English translation are taken from SophoclesPhiloctetes, Introduction, Translation and Commentary by R. G. Ussher, Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1990.Google Scholar
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    The sequence specifically echoes Sophocles'Philoctetes, line 1416, with Heracles' labours likened to stepping stones. Helen Eastman's 1999 production (Edinburgh and Oxford) showed Philoctetes being helped on his way across the stepping stones represented by a line of bar stools. Heaney's text direction that the Chorus should be female is usually followed for the Heracles intervention even if some members of the Chorus have to be male. The 1999 Oxford production also used the movement and position on stage of the Chorus to represent visually the changing focus and sympathies of the debate and to guide the audience's possible response. (Source: Interview with Director, 21 October 1999).Google Scholar
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    Seamus Heaney, ‘Mycenae Lookout’, in: Heaney,The Spirit Level, London: Faber & Faber, 1996, discussed by Helen Vendler, ‘Seamus Heaney and theOresteia: “Mycenae Lookout” and the usefulness of tradition’, in: M. McDonald and J. M. Walton (eds.), op. cit. (above, n. 56), Introduction to Marianne McDonald and J. Michael Walton (eds.),Amid Our Troubles: Irish Versions of Greek Tragedy, London: Methuen, M002, p. xii–xiii. pp. 181–197.Google Scholar
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    Another exploration of this ambivalence can be seen in the very different historical context explored in the poem ‘Philoctetes’ by the Anglo-Irish academic T. R. Henn, ‘Philoctetes and other poems’, in: Henn,Five Arches: A sketch for an Autobiography, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1980. Henn notes Philoctetes an an archetypal figure not only in Ireland but also in the Europe of the 1930s when Henn regarded the Spanish Civil War as a microcosm of the future. The closing lines of the poem are ‘And with the shot, the ulcer shed its poison,/The blood flowed red again’.Google Scholar
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    There is a resonance with Padraig Colum's poem ‘A Poor Scholar of the Forties’ in which the schoolmaster gets his reward by hearing phrases from the ancient texts recur in ‘rustic speech’, Kinsella (ed.),. For discussion of examples of how Heaney's words have been appropriated in current political discourse by figures such as the Irish President Mary Robinson and the U.S. President Bill Clinton, see Heaney, ‘The Cure at Troy: Production Notes’ (above, n. 65), from Sophocles in order to intensify the ethical issues, Deane, ‘Field Day's Greeks (and Russians)’, especially pp. 176–178, 180 n. 5, and Lorna Hardwick,New Surveys in the Classics: Reception Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, chapter 6; Hugh Denard, ‘Seamus Heaney, Colonialism and the Cure’,PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 22.3, 2000, pp. 1–18.Google Scholar
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    Seamus Heaney, ‘Feeling into words’, collected in: Heaney,Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968–1978 London: Faber and Faber 1980, pp. 41–60.Google Scholar
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    The role of classical images in the development of his work is outlined in Heaney's Nobel Lecture, ‘Crediting Poetry’, in: Heaney,Opened Ground pp. 445–467. I hope to explore the figurative and cultural aspects of this interaction in a future article, ‘Seamus Heaney’s Classical Ground’.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lorna Hardwick
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Classical StudiesThe Open UniversityMilton KeynesUK

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