Meredith’s poetics, explicitly articulated and theorized in his poem “The Woods of Westermain,” are diametrically opposed to those of New Criticism. Always conscious of its own incompleteness, Meredith’s poetry calls out its reader as an active co-producer of meaning. For this reason, like Robert Browning’s, Meredith’s work has been haunted by critical accusations of obscurity and incoherence since its earliest publication. This essay argues that Meredith’s poetry dissolves the customary imagined boundaries between poem, text and reader – between perceiving subject and perceived object – in order to produce an expanded sense of consciousness that can broadly be termed “environmental.” Such a poetics, moreover, constitutes an integral part of a broader environmental philosophy running through Meredith’s poetry. This philosophy challenges limited concepts of “text” that often govern scholarship today. In Meredith’s hands, “text” includes not merely the poem on the page but the larger situation within which the poem comes into being – the reading scene, the book of poems, and above all the graphic media (paper, ink, typeface, illustrations, etc) that constitute the poem’s literal environment.
-- Meredith, “Outer and Inner”
My world I note ere fancy comes,
Minutest hushed observe…
I neighbour the invisible
So close that my consent
Is only asked for spirits masked
To leap from trees and flowers.
And this because with them I dwell
In thought, while calmly bent
To read the lines dear Earth designs
Shall speak her life on ours.
In 1968 Lionel Stevenson lamented that Meredith was seriously neglected as a poet and that “much critical investigation of Meredith’s poems remains to be done” (Stevenson 364). But thirty-nine years later Stevenson’s lament seems even more forlorn; and with the exception of the brilliant sonnet sequence “Modern Love,” Meredith’s poetry remains generally unread and ignored. According to the critic John Lucas, who seriously questioned Meredith’s merits as a poet in 1971, this is an entirely just state of affairs since Meredith “lacked both a style and a subject,” and, in an age of extraordinary craftsmen, “stands out as extraordinarily slipshod, not so much by design as through indifference” (“Meredith As Poet” 18; 14). Lucas acknowledges somewhat reluctantly that Meredith was a sage to the late-Victorians and “meant… much to young men of the Edwardian era” (“Meredith As Poet” 19). But “it was not measured praise that won Meredith his reputation” (“Meredith’s Reputation” 11). As far as Lucas is concerned, Meredith was overrated as a poet in his own day and his reputation was bound to take a fall.
This high-handed argument will fail to satisfy historicist critics of Victorian poetry if only because it skirts, rather than addresses, the problem posed by Meredith’s popularity during four decades running roughly from the 1880s to World War One. “We have in him a great and a lasting Poet,” wrote Richard Curle in 1905 (396). “This is one of the most remarkable, perhaps the most remarkable, of the volumes of verse which have been put out during the last few years,” remarked Mark Pattison (248) on reviewing Meredith’s Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth (1883), while for Siegfried Sassoon the same volume was “one of the landmarks of nineteenth-century poetry” (159). “The lover of poetry will study his poems and come back to them, for they have true fire and invention,” commented the Pall Mall Gazette (245-46). Meredith “is in the true, wide sense, as no other English writer of the present time can be said to be, a Decadent,” wrote Arthur Symons in 1897; he “holds us, by the intensity of his vision of a world which is not our world, by the living imagination of a language which is not our language, by the energy of a genius which has done so much to achieve the impossible” (Symons 462-64).
In the light of these critical estimates, Lucas’s ready acquiescence in the disparagements of Amy Cruse, Ezra Pound and other Modernists eager to distance themselves from Victorianism seems troubling. The qualities in Victorian and Edwardian reactions to Meredith that seem most alien from today’s standpoint stand in stark judgment on contemporary criteria for evaluating poetry, raising the possibility that Victorians and Edwardians perceived in Meredith’s poetry something to which children of Modernism remain blind. But what was this “something”? And how might a postmodern generation learn to see with fresh eyes what, at best, remains obscured in the combined mists of time and poetic ideology?
One route to answering these questions can be found in looking at Lucas’s charges more closely. Meredith’s poetry is “above all… unnatural,” declares Lucas (“Meredith As Poet” 14), in part because he “wrote a good deal of poetry without really knowing what he wanted to do or say,” and, as a result, “to read Meredith in bulk is to become aware that he lacked both a style and a subject” (“Meredith as Poet” 17-18). Lucas betrays a marked impatience here with poetry that does not quickly and easily proclaim its own rationale; and his remarks immediately call down on themselves Oscar Wilde’s comment that
From time to time the world cries out against some charming artistic poet, because, to use its hackneyed and silly phrase, he has `nothing to say.’ But if he had something to say, he would probably say it, and the result would be tedious. It is just because he has no new message, that he can do beautiful work…. All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.Wilde, “The Critic As Artist” 398
Lucas’s temperamental directness makes him critically blind to poetic language that does not “say what it means” (to employ the March Hare’s useful phrase). For Lucas, poetry should be self-sufficient, requiring little effort or imagination from its reader. For such a reader, a poem’s meanings are immanent, injected into it once and for all time by its author, whose individual stamp it bears, or should bear, as clearly as it fulfills its author’s intellectual intentions. The poem’s value, for Lucas, consequently lies in its ability to generate effects by purely internal means – Lucas faults Meredith severely for his “handling” of rhyme, rhythm, imagery, and above all for “imprecisions of thought and language” – without any recourse to the reader it interpellates (“Meredith As Poet” 14-15). For Lucas, heavily informed by the classical rigors of the New Criticism, a poem is a textual and authorial object – either a “well-wrought urn” or not – and Meredith’s poetry is to be heavily censured for failing virtually every test of what makes a poem “good.”
But as Wilde reminds us, “the meaning of any beautiful created thing is at least as much in the soul of him who looks at it, as it was in his soul who wrought it” (Wilde, “The Critic As Artist” 367). And just as the artwork “may be marred, and indeed often is so, by any excess of intellectual intention on the part of the artist” (Wilde, “The Critic As Artist” 368), so “the primary aim of the critic is to see the object as in itself it really is not…. not as expressive, but as impressive purely” (Wilde, “The Critic As Artist” 369-72). Although one might answer Lucas by pointing to the number of critics who have argued for Meredith’s technical skill as a poet as well as the coherence of his poetry’s “philosophy,” the problems with the assumptions underpinning Lucas’s attack emerge most clearly once we turn to Meredith’s poetry itself: “Enter these enchanted woods,/ You who dare./ Nothing harms beneath the leaves/ More than waves a swimmer cleaves./ Toss your heart up with the lark,/ Foot at peace with mouse and worm,/ Fare you fair” (“The Woods of Westermain,” sec. 1, ll. 1-7). As Arthur Symons must have perceived in terming Meredith England’s leading Decadent poet, it is harder to think of a body of late-Victorian poetry that does not more clearly announce itself to be a site of danger, negotiation and exchange -- openly proclaiming its own partiality or incompleteness while simultaneously calling out its reader as an active, imaginative co-producer of meaning. The words “you and “your” occur five times in the first thirteen lines of “The Woods of Westermain,” the poem with which Meredith opened his 1883 volume Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth, emphasizing a reciprocity with their reader that later becomes the subject of the poem itself. With its declamatory opening, at once invitation and threat, “The Woods of Westermain” exacts a charge and a commitment with its very first word. Meredith proposes a kind of contract with his reader – “nothing harms” so long as you “toss your heart up” and “foot at peace” – according to which the habitual claims of rational judgment, premised on the integrity of the perceiving self, are suspended in favor of an openness to experience and the world at large. Meredith contracts to “enchant” his reader only insofar as his reader willingly “enters” into an admittedly risky world. It is clearly a contract whose terms Lucas has rejected.
In this sense, what is immediately striking about Meredith’s poem is that it has anticipated the judgments of self-professed experts as well as the legions of readers who have condemned Meredith on the grounds of his incoherence or “difficulty.” “Bring you a note/ Wrangling, howsoe’er remote,” Meredith writes, “Discords out of discord spin/ Round and round derisive din:/ Sudden will a pallor pant/ Chill at screeches miscreant” (“Woods of Westermain,” sec. 3, ll. 143-48). The poem recognizes its own difficulty and danger; but more importantly, it knows that “In yourself may lurk the trap” and that only a change in the reader’s consciousness will dispel such danger and deliver a fuller recognition of what the woods have to offer:
“Woods of Westermain” 4. 265-70
Are you of the stiff, the dry,
Cursing the not understood;
Grasp you with the monster’s claws,
Govern with his truncheon-saws…
You are lost in Westermain.
The word “govern” is especially significant here, for the issue on which the poem turns is properly-speaking one of authority; expert readers are perhaps the least likely to immerse themselves in the kinds of active experience the text demands, with the result that they will find the poem lacking in the formal principles or “truncheon-saws” they are too often most comfortable with (and on which their authority as critics is established). “Heed that snare,” Meredith advises his reader at one point. “Reject/ Your proud title of elect, / Perilous even here while few/ Roam the arched greenwood with you” (“Woods of Westermain” 4.31-34).
The opening lines of “The Woods of Westermain” are remarkable, then, for their self-reflexivity and for their explicit acknowledgement that the poem, if not the larger book (“the leaves”) of which this poem is part, is a participatory environment from whose “shadowed leagues of slumbering sound” we may “gather ripe/ Pleasures flowing not from purse” (“Woods of Westermain” 3.16-20). Meredith’s opening injunction calls the reader to a fuller experience of “these enchanted woods” on the understanding that precisely this call may cause the unwary to stumble. The deliberate pun here (the woods are “enchanted” both in the sense of being other-worldly or magical, and in the sense of being a thoroughly vocalized, chanted entity) is the first of many moments where Meredith’s poem alludes self-consciously to its own “poetic” qualities. The deictic pronoun “these” identifies a scene of enchantment located within the reader’s immediate purview, calling our attention to the poem’s title “The Woods of Westermain” (whose spatial proximity is crucial to this phrase’s effect) as well as bringing attention to bear on the book of poems itself, prefaced by “The Woods of Westermain,” figuratively imagined as an enchanted wood. In short, the poem is conscious of itself as what Jerome McGann would call a textual event, bringing its reader to a fuller presence of the act of reading.
This self-consciousness carries over into the second, short section of “The Woods of Westermain” in which Meredith invites us to venture a little further into the poem’s imaginary landscape:
“Woods of Westermain” 2.1-4
Here the snake across your path
Stretches in his golden bath:
Mossy-footed squirrels leap
Soft as winnowing plumes of Sleep.
Suddenly we are “here,” no longer on the edge but at the woods’ very center. The suddenness of this transition is all the more acute considering that, immediately prior to the section break that precedes these lines, we were still being “dared” to enter. These lines operate metaphorically as a commentary upon the poem’s unfolding lineation or division into sections, insofar as they foreground the presence of phenomena that threaten to obstruct while simultaneously offering incitements to further progress. As with “these enchanted woods” in the poem’s opening line, “here the snake across your path” brings attention to the white space and typographical marks immediately preceding this phrase (especially the roman numeral “II” marking out a new section to the poem) as much as to the poem, book or imaginary “wood” unfolding before our eyes. Such halting self-consciousness momentarily drops away so long as we willingly venture into the woods:
“Woods of Westermain” 2.5-8
Yaffles on a chuckle skim
Low to laugh from branches dim:
Up the pine, where sits the star,
Rattles deep the moth-ringed jar.
But once suspicion and “distrust” return, the woods’ enchantment dissipates, the “chant” falters, and the poem enacts a palpable “shudder”:
“Woods of Westermain” 2.10-16
But should you distrust a tone,
Shudder all the haunted roods,
All the eyeballs under hoods
Shroud you in their glare.
Enter these enchanted woods,
You who dare.
Already it is clear, then, that Meredith’s poetry envisions itself not as an object to be passively consumed but as a participatory environment fraught with danger and risk. We are as far from Pope’s understanding of poetry as “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well exprest” (Pope 27, line 298) as we are from Arnold’s understanding of it as “the breath and finer spirit of knowledge,” capable of supplanting religion’s capacity to “interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us” (Arnold 161-62). For Meredith, the Woods of Westermain are poetry itself. Disorientation and discovery are as central to the reading process as any truth that stands pre-formed at the center of the text. Indeed, Lucas’s objection that Meredith lacks a coherent “subject” and does not know what he wants to “say” contains the seeds of an important insight; for just as the physical exploration of woods constitutes a journey with no destination or center -- a journey conducted solely for the experience of discovery itself -- so “The Woods of Westermain” enacts an ever-deepening, widening process with no discernible center or conclusion. And if the poem’s entry is uncertain and halting, describing the kinds of false starts that might easily deter the faint-hearted, the poem’s traversal as a whole takes place, stumblingly and hypnotically, in what one early reviewer described as a critical semi-darkness; as that reviewer puts it in the Pall Mall Gazette, Meredith’s poetry describes “a succession of shifting lights, coming from points a little off the usual range of sight” (245). Though self-consciously figurative, the remark registers that the experience of movement in time and space, at once exhilarating and disorienting, stands at the center of Meredith’s mature poetry. Indeed, this emphasis on the felt perception of movement, on environment as something experienced, is one of its defining differences from the great body of Romantic nature poetry with which it is sometimes compared.
If the first two sections of Meredith’s poem describe and reflect upon a difficult entry, recalling in their premature closure the kinds of false starts and self-reflexive beginnings more typical of postmodern literature, a fuller engagement with “The Woods of Westermain” is only really brought about with the couplet “Open hither, open hence,/ Scarce a bramble weaves a fence” (3.1-2) that begins the poem’s third section. The air of danger and alienation that pervaded the poem’s first two sections is here noticeably more muted – “of dire wizardry,” says Meredith, there is now “no hint,/ Save mayhap the print that shows/ Hasty outward-tripping toes,/ Heels to terror on the mould” (3.8-11) -- and the reader is suddenly able to penetrate an environment that had hitherto seemed daunting and risky. Although Meredith’s tightly-woven rhyme scheme counteracts the illusion of complete freedom, fencing the text no less perceptibly than “brambles” that threaten to trip the unwary, such constraints are minor obstacles to swift progress, Meredith implies. Consequently the reader quickly finds him- or herself in the thick of “These, the woods of westermain,” surrounded by “Wavy tree-tops, yellow whins” that “Shelter eager minikins, /Myriads, free to peck and pipe” (3.12-19). That “these” here refers to the sounds of the poem, or the pages (“leaves”) of which the book (“folio”) of poems is composed, becomes clear from Meredith’s comment that the woods “Are as others to behold, Rich of wreathing sun and rain;/ Foliage lustreful around/ Shadowed leagues of slumbering sound” (3.13-16). Once again, the emphasis here is upon the reader’s active experience – an emphasis that becomes explicit and wholly self-conscious in the lines that immediately follow:
“Woods of Westermain” 3.20-39
Would you better? would you worse?
You with them may gather ripe
Pleasures flowing not from purse.
Quick and far as Colour flies
Taking the delighted eyes,
You of any well that springs
May unfold the heaven of things;
Have it homely and within,
And thereof its likeness win,
Will you so in soul's desire:
This do sages grant t' the lyre.
This is being bird and more,
More than glad musician this;
Granaries you will have a store
Past the world of woe and bliss;
Sharing still its bliss and woe;
Harnessed to its hungers, no.
On the throne Success usurps,
You shall seat the joy you feel
Where a race of water chirps.
The repetition of “you” here (the word occurs eight times within the space of twenty lines) signifies the extent to which Meredith’s subject is the textual event itself – the reader’s experience of “pleasures” traditionally granted by “sages” to the “lyre” – no less than the straightforwardly environmental experience of the woods themselves. Meredith invites his reader to extend the experience of reading into the world at large, so that “the heaven of things” appears “homely and within.” The repeated pronoun “This” in “This do sages grant t’the lyre./ This is being bird and more,/ More than glad musician this” blurs the boundaries between our immediate experience of the poem itself and our imaginative experience of environmental epiphany, with the result that it becomes difficult to distinguish Meredith’s text from the woods he is invoking. This blurring is accomplished too by the shift from future to present tense in the couplet “You shall seat the joy you feel/ Where a race of water chirps.” On one level, “the joy you feel” describes a joy that will follow if other conditions are first met – a contingent joy, located in the far-off future. But on another level, Meredith’s language recognizes that such joy is already experienced in the present, as a function of the poem itself. This elision of the distinction between poetic experience and environmental experience is of the utmost importance given the complete title of the volume in which “The Woods of Westermain” first appeared: Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth. The poem has literally become an index of the “earth” itself, Meredith seems to be implying, generating a pleasure that embodies as much as it anticipates the joy of life itself.
The textual self-consciousness I am describing here is distinct from that kind we are familiar with from postmodernism. In the context of the poem’s overt concern with environmental experience, Meredith’s close attention to the textual event serves to demonstrate that all experience is properly speaking “environmental” and that poetry is especially well suited to enlivening us to the tissue of a world embodied in its concrete sounds and verbal rhythms. If art and poetry are predicated on a loss of integration with our immediate environment, as Meredith’s contemporary William Morris argued forcefully on numerous occasions (see Morris, “Art and The Beauty” and Frankel), Meredith’s poetry is dedicated to healing that loss and delivering a fuller sense of our oneness with things:
“Woods of Westermain” 3.93-96
Drink the sense the notes infuse,
You a larger sense of self will find:
Sweetest fellowship ensues
With the creatures of your kind.
“The notes” here are the insistent trochaic meter and the repeated “s” alliteration of the poem itself as much as the elemental “beat” one “hears” through poetry’s “measured grave accord” with the larger environment (3.90-91). The same thing can be said of “the sense,” with its punning obfuscation of the distinction between cognitive reason and sensation, as well as its suggestion that “sense” is an “infusion” that can be drunk like tea. Definite articles pile up on one another in these four lines, as if driven by the need to realize the objective world in the here and now of immediate presence. As a result, Meredith’s signifieds (sense, notes, creatures) repeatedly collapse into their signifiers as if determined to embrace the materiality of language at the most primitive of levels. The perceptual revolution Meredith is attempting to bring about begins with the poem itself, an active and “sensible” experience of which is the beginning of a larger “fellowship” with a living world at once human, animal and environmental.
These ideas come to a head in Meredith’s meditations on the nature of love and the urgent need to transcend “self” in the second half of “The Woods of Westermain.” Just as “drink[ing ] the sense the notes infuse” delivers “sweetest fellowship… with the creatures of your kind,” so Meredith’s reader will encounter “Love, if Love it be/ Flaming over I and ME,” since “Love meet they who do not shove/Cravings in the van of Love” (3.97-100). In delivering a fuller engagement with the objective world, Meredith’s “woods” dissolve the imagined boundaries of “I and Me,” generating an imaginative symbiosis that is best described in the language of love. The metaphors Meredith uses to describe this symbiosis reinforce the connection between poetic and environmental forms of engagement:
“Woods of Westermain” 3.125-32
Here the ancient battle ends,
Joining two astonished friends,
Who the kiss can give and take
With more warmth than in that world
Where the tiger claws the snake,
Snake her tiger clasps infurled,
And the issue of their fight
Peoples lands in snarling plight.
The “ancient battle” between sworn enemies, whose “issue… peoples lands in snarling plight,” ends in a labial kiss that dissolves the boundary between subject and object (or “give and take”):
“Woods of Westermain” 3.133-36
Here her splendid beast she leads
Silken-leashed and decked with weeds
Wild as he, but breathing faint
Sweetness of unfelt constraint.
Meredith’s lines perfectly enact the symbiotic process they are describing, generating a haunting beauty by virtue of their rhythmic structure, true end-rhymes, and the subtle consonance of “s,” “l” and “d” sounds, as implied by the phrase “breathing faint/ Sweetness of unfelt constraint” (in one sense, a perfect articulation of poetry’s vocal operations). Oral metaphors abound:
“Woods of Westermain” 3.139-43
Love, the sole permitted, sings
Bowers he has of sacred shade,
Spaces of superb parade,
The dissolution of “I and Me” is conspicuously figured in oral and spatial terms, implying that the revolution Meredith describes is not some Utopian vision trapped within the prison-house of the imagination but rather something already implicit and partly achieved (“Here”) in the “faint/ Sweetness” of poetry itself. This idea is consolidated by the lines immediately following, already quoted to demonstrate how the poem anticipates Lucas’s critique, in which a “note/ Wrangling” sounded by “you” produces “discord” in both its general (anarchic) and local (sonic) senses:
“Woods of Westermain” 3.143-54
…But bring you a note,
Wrangling, howsoe’er remote,
Discords out of discord spin
Round and round derisive din:
Sudden will a pallor pant
Chill at screeches miscreant;
Owls or specters, thick they flee;
Nightmare upon horror broods;
Hooded laughter, monkish glee,
Gaps the vital air.
Enter these enchanted woods
You who dare.
The “sterner worship” activated by experience of the woods “bars/ None whom Song has made her stars” (3.69-70). Those mythic figures of creativity and love (“Phoebus lyrist,” “Phoebe’s horn,” “Pipings of the reedy Pan”) are “Banished… Not from here, nor under ban” because, “Loved of earth,” they “Loving did interpret her” (3.63-68). Mythic beauty has a concrete presence; and poetry is one with the earth it “interprets,” no less than the “old-eyed oxen” that “chew/ Speculation with the cud” (3.45-46), because it emanates from the same elemental wellspring. “This is in the tune we play” (3.85): through the “measured grave accord” of the poem’s meter and rhyme-scheme one “Hears the heart of wildness beat/ Like a centaur’s hoof on sward” (3.90-92).
A host of further instances could be given from Poems and Lyrics of The Joy of Earth, as well as from Meredith’s later collection A Reading of Earth, to demonstrate the collapsing of physical and textual environment that I am describing in “The Woods of Westermain.” But my argument will be sufficiently clear by this point: although many of Meredith’s poems take “nature” as their subject, his poetry is by no means simplistically naturalistic or descriptive. Rather Meredith’s is a poetry of self-conscious effects or devices in which the poem is conceptualized as a living environment and nature is something embodied in the reader’s active experience. By calling us to a fuller engagement with a more natural environment, Meredith repeatedly dissolves any clear distinction between the imagined environment of woods and the textual environment of the poem, implying that nature is not something that resides at a distant remove from the urban world of readers, books, and poetry, but rather something that resides too in the materials and experiences we confront in the exercise of our most basic faculties. Nature, in this sense, is for Meredith not simply a thing (the environment), opposed to the world of subjective experience, but rather something corporeal and “experienced” that resides in both perceiver and perceived, saturating even the private act of reading. Insofar as poetry enlivens readers to the tissue of the world, all poetry is nature-poetry, Meredith would hold; and to the extent that his poetry seems preoccupied with woods, heaths, valleys and so on, Meredith’s object is not to represent specific scenes of idealized naturalism so much as it is to awaken to the force of nature precisely those readers who might assume, in the wake of the Romantics, that nature remains something alien to the operations of mind, body and imagination. Certainly, Meredith was inspired by actual places in the region of his beloved South Downs: “The Woods of Westermain,” in particular, says Phyllis Bartlett, was in part a eulogy to Norbury Woods, near Meredith’s Boxhill home (Bartlett 207). But for Meredith the gap between such actual places and the poem itself, in which “environment” comes in to being only through the activity of its perception, was of the utmost importance. As Meredith himself puts it in meditating on the “theme” of his 1883 collection (“My Theme: Continued”), to regard his poetry as enacting a naturalist politics of disengagement—as sanctifying nature through the artistic objectification of realistic natural scenes—is to produce only the most superficial and obvious reading of it. Meredith refuses to “treat with Nature” “in official pacts,” since this renders nature, poet and reader a “deader body” in the process. Eschewing “your sons of facts,” Meredith’s poetry embodies a “thirst for light” that goes to the very grounds of being:
“My Theme: Continued”
Tis true the wisdom that my mind exacts
Through contemplation from a heart unbent
By many tempests may be stained and rent:
The summer flies it mightily attracts.
Yet they seem choicer than your sons of facts,
Which scarce give breathing of the sty’s content
For their diurnal carnal nourishment:
Which treat with Nature in official pacts.
The deader body Nature could proclaim.
Much life have neither. Let the heavens of wrath
Rattle, then both scud scattering to froth.
But during calms the flies of idle aim
Less put the spirit out, less baffle thirst
For light than swinish grunters, blest or curst.
The overlapping of nature and poetry I have been describing thus far can be understood partly by reference to the writings of the philosopher John Dewey, for whom art was a fundamentally experienced entity, “a strain in experience rather than an entity in itself” (Dewey, Art as Experience 330), continuous with, and prefigured in, the very processes of living:
A bird builds its nest and a beaver its dam when internal organic pressures cooperate with external materials so that the former are fulfilled and the latter are transformed in a satisfying culmination. We may hesitate to apply the word “art,” since we doubt the presence of directive intent. But all deliberation, all conscious intent, grows out of things once performed organically through the interplay of natural energies…. The existence of art is the concrete proof… that man uses the materials and energies of nature with intent to expand his own life, and that he does so in accord with the structure of his organism – brain, sense-organs and muscular system. Art is the living and concrete proof that man is capable of restoring consciously, and thus on the plan of meaning, the union of sense, need, impulse and action characteristic of the live creature.Art as Experience 24-25
For Dewey, “the esthetic is no intruder in experience from without… [but] the clarified and intensified development of traits that belong to every normally complete experience” (Art as Experience 46). Any form of aesthetic practice or experience represents “the interaction of the live being with his surroundings” (Art as Experience 15) and is born from an “active and alert commerce with the world: at its height, it signifies complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events” (Art as Experience 19). Partly for this reason, the very terms art and poetry were problematic for Dewey insofar as they designate the book, painting, statue, poem or text “in its existence apart from human experience” (Art as Experience 3). Dewey notes that almost from the moment it becomes admired, the art object “somehow becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life experience” (Art as Experience 3). As a corrective to this process of estrangement, Dewey dedicates Art as Experience to restoring “continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience” (3).
As William Morris and other contemporaries of Meredith realized, restoring this continuity between art and experience involves revolutionizing the concept of art or poetry itself: “I must ask you to extend the word art,” declared William Morris more or less simultaneously with the publication of Poems and Lyrics, “beyond those matters which are consciously works of art, to take in not only painting and sculpture, and architecture, but the shapes and colours of all household goods, nay, even the arrangement of the fields for tillage and pasture, the management of towns and of our highways of all kinds; in a word, to extend it to the aspect of all the externals of our life” (Morris, “Art Under Plutocracy” 108). And, just as for Meredith an active experience of “woods” involves a concept of poetry that eschews technical perfectionism and self-conscious beauty as ends in themselves, for many late-Victorians the term art included not only experience itself but those realms of experience – nature, environment, sense, and flesh – judged extrinsic to art for much of the twentieth century by critics driven to appraise it in terms of its “internal” or formal structures. “Aesthetic experience,” it has recently been argued, “is much more, and significantly other, than disinterested observation with the eyes of a bystander: it is participation and the dynamics of movement, pleasure in one’s physicality, exertion and rest” (Sepänmaa 190). As Arnold Berleant has suggested, we need to “enlarge the field of aesthetic experience… to allow for an aesthetics of the social situation” in which “the situation itself becomes the focus of perceptual attention, as it does in conceptual sculpture or environments” (Berleant, “On Getting Along Beautifully” 21).
To this point, I have been arguing that Meredith’s poetry attempts to restore continuity between poetry itself and the environments in which poetry operates. In “The Woods of Westermain,” in particular, the poem includes not just the text on the page but the reading situation through which the poem comes to be understood as a fundamentally experienced entity. But the difficulties presented by Meredith’s poetry are many, notwithstanding (and quite possibly because of) the directness of this call to experience. Lucas is not the only reader to be deterred by what he terms “imprecisions of thought and language” (Lucas, “Meredith as Poet” 15) or by what B. Ifor Evans more generously calls Meredith’s “delight in verbal convolutions” (201). Readers frequently object to Meredith’s compressed and unusual syntax, in particular, charging his poetry with obscurity or even ineloquence, and as a consequence Meredith has never really recovered from Wilde’s famous judgment that “his style is chaos illuminated by flashes of lightning” (Wilde, “The Decay of Lying” 298).
I have been suggesting that this delight in linguistic compression is a deliberate strategy on Meredith’s part, designed to initiate his reader into the kinds of physical and imaginative experiences theorized explicitly in “The Woods of Westermain.” As Evans has commented, “the perplexing elements, once they have been unraveled, render a rich yield of thought which could not have been otherwise fashioned.” They serve to color the philosophical poetry, he goes on to explain, “with an atmosphere not inappropriate to its content, a suggestion of quick energy, violent at times and explosive, but never inert…. His crabbed, hard effects have at their best a vigour that seems suggestive of a new poetic vitality” (201). Or, as Carol Bernstein has remarked,
The weight is on artifice, on words used out of their ordinary contexts, on elliptical and often unique verbal arrangements…. The freight of compounds, the nouns used as adjectives, the common words used in alien contexts, all create the qualitative, reconstructed universe of Meredith’s poems…. Meredith formed a vision of the natural world enhanced, brought into the realm of poetic artifice without losing its ties with actuality.5
The deliberation with which Meredith employed poetic artifice or “crabbed hard effects” in order to heighten our experience of the poem helps to explain one of the most frequently criticized, yet crucial, features of his poetry. Lucas complains that Meredith’s “ear for rhythm is mostly dull and … appalling,” that Meredith “sticks doggedly to metre in a way that … becomes obtrusively mechanical” (“Meredith as Poet” 14), while even such a well-intentioned defender as G. M. Trevelyan admits how justly and how often Meredith can be faulted for “the want of smooth continuous melody” (25). What these objections miss, it seems to me, is the possibility that the dogged rhythms of Meredith’s nature poetry serve a unified intellectual purpose. For Meredith’s nature poetry – which generally eschews the conventions of both lyric and narrative poetry, inhabiting a formal universe of its own invention – is, above all, incantatory, as the trope “enchanted woods” implies. Meredith aspires to the emphatic, patterned stresses of primeval chant or dirge, in which individuals transcend their selfish concerns through identification with a simple rhythmic pulse, and to this extent it may be fairer to judge the prosody of his nature poetry by the formulaic, incantatory conventions of certain oral traditions than by the exquisitely modulated metrics of the modern era.
Paul Zumthor’s definition of oral poetry, for instance, embraces precisely those formal qualities that Lucas sees as faults: “oral poetry… is distinguished by the intensity of its features: it is rigorously formalized, replete with markings of a very distinct structuration” (33). Such poetry “is never saturated, never completely fills its semantic space,” Zumthor goes on to remark (41). Ruth Finnegan’s distinction between sung, intoned, and spoken modes of poetic performance may also be useful in answering Lucas’s charges (see Finnegan, 118-19). The assumption that oral poems must be sung stems from “the fact that most quotations and anthologies are naturally biased towards the shorter lyrical forms” (Finnegan 118). But there is a “more recitative type” of oral poetry “which often seems appropriate for longer pieces where there is an interest in the verbal rather than the musical content.” (Finnegan 118). Although Finnegan does not specify the social implications for this recitative or incantatory mode, she concedes that it may be “integral” (122) to that collapsing of poet and audience, crucial to much oral poetry, whereby individual identities become merged in a common performance and “the joint performance … expresses and consolidates the cohesiveness of the group” (217). As Paul Zumthor remarks, the oral poem “tends towards immediacy and a transparency that is less one of meaning than of its linguistic `beingness’” (98). And it rarely makes use of the pronoun “I” common in lyric verse. As far as its audience is concerned, the “voice” of the oral poem “does not completely belong to the mouth from which it emanates; it comes from within” (Zumthor 185):
Oral poetry masters the very pulsations of the body, and the heartbeats of life that gives birth to its rhythm and bends them to its order. From this internal tension… there comes an energy from which it derives its formidable unifying power.Zumthor 188
Insofar as Meredith’s poetry aspires to this unifying power (“Drink the sense the notes infuse,/ You a larger sense of self will find: / Sweetest fellowship ensues”), Meredith counts heavily on the reader’s perception of rhythm as the “magnetic force” of the poem (Zumthor 132) – so much so that Meredith’s poems, like Hopkins’s, can sometimes have the air about them of experiments in metrics for metrics’ own sake. The metrical note that Meredith inserted at the end of Poems and Lyrics is a mark of his determination in this respect, for it brings to consciousness the technical mechanism whereby the “joy of earth” is to be realized As Dewey writes, “The rhythm of loss of integration with environment and recovery of union not only persists in man but becomes conscious with him” (Art as Experience 14-15). Underneath the rhythm of “every work of art there lies… the basic pattern of the relations of the live creature to his environment” (Art as Experience 150).
It might immediately be objected that to emphasize these oral aspects of Meredith’s poetry is to ignore Meredith’s apparent aversion to its performance in front of actual audiences and his embrace of the printed book, as well as the quarterlies and monthlies, as his preferred performance medium. But until the genesis of the Rhymers’ Club in the 1890s, the live recitation of poetry was almost always a private affair for the Victorians; and as Zumthor remarks, the “economy of the oral text has so profoundly marked our ways that it seems to have imposed itself everywhere, even on the modalities of writing” (42). The text’s eventual existence as a book does not preclude its embrace of what Zumthor calls “the rhythm of the living voice” (46), so much so that, in the modern era, oral poetry is frequently written or printed before it is ever recited. As Eric Griffiths has argued, the attributes of the human voice often seem to inhere within the printed text, prompting its reader to imagine a fuller “sense of the writer it calls up – an ideal body, a plausible voice” even in the absence of a literal speaker (60). The printed text is thus no less capable than the spoken of bringing about that expanded sense of collectivity or community which is a principal attribute of the oral poem: “In literature shaped by the printing-press, writer and reader do not ‘properly’ face each other. But this sense of a lost community, felt as a form of death by some writers when their voice fails to be manifest in print, is the germ of a further community and a new life; it prompts the reader to interpret and resuscitate” (Griffiths 61).
The Nature Poems of George Meredith may be a perfect instance of this drive to invest the printed text with the collective, integrative aspects of the oral poem. Produced in 1898 under the aegis of Meredith’s son William Maxse Meredith, this is a typically exquisite 1890s production, heavily informed by the Renaissance of Printing that was then underway. Beautifully illustrated, bound in white buckram, and printed with consummate typographical taste using a variety of fine papers, Meredith’s nature poems seem here, at first, to occupy a purely “printed” or bibliographic universe. Here Meredith’s text comes close to William Morris’s description of the ideal or “architecturally good” book that “can look actually and positively beautiful” despite the absence of ornamentation (Morris, “The Ideal Book” 67).
But as is the case with many of William Morris’s books too, the exquisiteness of the book’s bibliographic features expresses the determination of its producers that it should constitute a living environment in its own right; and the poems gathered in the book are ordered and presented in such a way as to make the reading experience parallel the traversal of terrain that begins and ends in leafy woods: the collection opens with “Woodland Peace” and closes with “The Woods of Westermain,” suggesting that Meredith and his publishers saw woodland as an organizing trope for the book as a whole, a suggestion reinforced by the recurrence of woodland settings in a number of poems in the volume (see also n. 5 below). As importantly, the reader encounters no less than four types of paper of varying textures in the course of reading Meredith’s text, as if the book were somehow determined to “yield the texture of the world and… enhance the ways by which we can know it.” The typography is eye-catching -- a modern bold-face type, compactly leaded so as to produce a pleasing visual whole, set within wide, Whistler-esque margins. Epigrams for each illustration are printed in red, perpendicular to the texts of the poems themselves (see fig. 1), on tissue-guards that protect and veil each illustration. And the title-page to the volume (see fig. 2) is conspicuous for its symmetry or balance, for being printed in two colours (the title words Nature Poems as well as the publisher’s imprint appear in red) and for featuring an elaborate engraved device in which Meredith’s initials appear interwoven with a stylized vine motif. Such features speak volumes of the book’s desire to be “cosseted” or “hugged up… as a material piece of goods” – or, as William Morris might say, inhabited and enjoyed like a house (Morris, “Some Thoughts On The Ornamented Manuscripts of the Middle Ages” 1).
But of all the features that mark The Nature Poems, the one that most clearly defines Meredith’s book as environment or habitat is the series of gorgeous plein air illustrations provided by the landscape painter William Hyde to accompany Meredith’s poems. Hyde was an American landscape painter who flourished as a book illustrator at the turn of the century (he illustrated Alice Meynell’s London Impressions, A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, Edward Garnett’s An Imaged World, and county histories of Norfolk and Hampshire, among other works). His rich, evocative designs for Meredith’s poems suggest his own profound love for wooded landscape as well as his deep knowledge of the photogravure medium, which was increasingly used to reproduce paintings and photographs in the late-1890s and “is distinguished by its dense, rich solids… and by its ability to print with delicate detail on uncoated paper” (The Bookman’s Glossary, q. v. “gravure” 101). Hyde’s illustrations to The Nature Poems are at once representational and nonrepresentational insofar as they harness the power of photogravure to lend the black-and-white illustration a texture of its own (see fig. 3 to 6). Deploying black ink in ways that recreate the effects of color and light, they achieve a softness and tonal subtlety impossible in the more iconic medium of line-engraving popular in the early 1890s. Partly for this reason, Hyde’s illustrations convey an impression of openness or invitation comparable to that of Meredith’s poems themselves. In some senses, they are barely landscape pictures at all, coming far closer to that more intimate, engaging visual environment Arnold Berleant terms “participatory landscape” than those panoramic scenes commonly meant by landscape whose “pictorial features… present an objectified space and encourage a disinterested attitude” (Berleant, Art and Engagement 59-64). Hyde’s illustrations eschew the large-scale perspectives of the Hudson River School, for instance, in which “the viewer is a remote observer from whose eye distance is measured and perspective begins.” (Berleant, Art and Engagement 63). They offer only fragments or partial views of localized scenes, and they are far more interested in textural effects and the play of light than in straightforward renderings of the Newtonian world. Through the very intimacy and scale of their vision, they invite their spectator – who is at the same time a reader – into the scenes they depict, with the result that he becomes one with the activity before him. A blending takes place between the seeing and the seen, so that we feel “caught in the fabric of the world” (Merleau-Ponty 125). Rather than seeing Hyde’s illustration, Maurice Merleau-Ponty might say, we see according to, or with, it.
We can see this capacity to merge seeing and seen at work in Hyde’s three untitled illustrations to Meredith’s poem “The South-Wester” (figs. 4-6). Insofar as the 1890s were an age dominated visually by the imagination of Aubrey Beardsley, when illustrators demanded equal billing with authors and when publishers prefaced illustrated books with elaborate Tables or “Lists of Pictures,” these three illustrations are remarkable first of all for their lack of titles, for being prefaced simply by textual fragments drawn from Meredith’s poem itself, and for their performative continuities with the poem they are designed to illustrate. But these continuities lie in Hyde’s attitude to the page or the book as much as in “what” is illustrated in the pictures themselves. In the third of the three cases, both the illustration and the poetic fragment prefacing it are printed perpendicular to the text of the poem itself so that one has to activate a conception of the book as book and literally re-orient oneself in order to comprehend the work of the illustrator (see fig. 1). (Fifteen of the twenty illustrations in the book are printed perpendicular to the poem’s text in this manner.) But even when the book has been rotated and the tissue guard lifted, Hyde’s illustrations seem disorienting on account of their abstraction and the immense tonal complexity achieved with black ink, applied here as never before to suggest the existence of color without actual use of colored pigment. One has to squint or concentrate to realize that Hyde’s third illustration to “The South-Wester,” for example, is a finely wrought evocation of storm-clouds in half-light (see fig. 6). The orientation of the illustration on the page, requiring the landscape to be viewed perpendicular to the poem itself, is a sign of its equivocal textual condition: for even when correctly oriented, the illustration seems caught between the “vertical” world of painting and what Walter Benjamin terms the “horizontal” or “cross-sectional” postures of graphic art. This ambiguity is especially noticeable in Hyde’s representations of the gaps between each cloud formation, which here strike the eye as unduly linear and two-dimensional. In this respect, the illustration exemplifies Benjamin’s warnings about the dangers of using graphic art in a too-painterly manner, encapsulated in his comment that “representing clouds and sky in drawings is a risky venture and can act as a touchstone of the drawing’s purity of style” (Benjamin, “Painting, or Signs and Marks” 84).
As with Meredith’s poem itself, Hyde’s photogravure illustration calls us to our senses as if daring us to enter its risky, changeable world. One consequence is that we quickly feel caught up by, even trammeled within, Hyde’s work without any clear sense initially of just “what” the scene consists of. The details that locate the scene – a wind-blasted tree and a swampy field in the picture’s foreground – appear almost as afterthoughts and are cast in dark shadow. Nonetheless for the viewer willing to embrace photogravure’s experimentalism, such details offer protection from the storm, literally constituting the ground from which we can safely view the passing “South-Wester.” And the representational problems stemming from Hyde’s dependency on the new medium come to seem visual equivalents of the “crabbed, hard effects” of Meredith’s style. In the context of the hermeneutic uncertainty we experience when first encountering the picture, there may be something inviting about the gap drawn into the very center, which seems to beckon us into the eye of the storm. So perceptively has Hyde caught the changeability and tumultuousness of storm-clouds in a twilit sky that the illustration ultimately engages more senses than the visual alone. By this means, Hyde “illustrates” Meredith’s poem more wholly than is usually implied by the term illustration. Scrutinizing Hyde’s tormented scene, we feel the buffeting “South-Wester” that is the subject of Meredith’s poem even if we do not see it.
In short, Hyde’s illustrations to The Nature Poems pull their viewer into the world of the poems no less concertedly than Meredith’s poems themselves. In this respect, Hyde’s illustrations work very differently from the cool, artificial work produced by many other illustrators of the so-called Beardsley period. For where the self-consciously “aesthetic” illustrator typically (and wittily) forces attention on the gap between illustration and text, calling our attention to the illustration’s autonomy and the illustrator’s prerogatives as an artist in his own right, Hyde’s illustrations extend the environment of Meredith’s poetry into the furthest reaches of the book. Here the faculties of sight and touch are directly engaged even as the South-Wester “pass[es] into the mind,/ Where immortal with mortal weds” (“The South-Wester” 2.115-16). In this sense, Hyde’s illustrations are key elements of the “pageant of man’s poetic brain” mentioned by Meredith at the close of his poem:
“The South Wester” 2.117-25
Whereby was known that we had viewed
The union of our earth and skies
Renewed: nor less alive renewed
Than when old bards, in nature wise,
Conceived pure beauty given to eyes,
And with undyingness imbued.
Pageant of man’s poetic brain,
His grand procession of the song,
It was; the Muses and their train.
The “union of our earth and skies” partakes of an existence at once textual and elemental, Meredith writes. By the same token, the “environment” of Meredith’s poetry extends into the very fiber of the book so that nature’s “pageant” unfolds invitingly before our eyes as a work of “pure beauty.”
He teaches in the PhD Program in Media, Art and Text at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of Oscar Wilde’s Decorated Books (U Michigan P, 2000) as well as many essays, articles and reviews on late-Victorian literature and art. Recent and forthcoming work includes “The Concrete Poetics of Michael Field” (in Michael Field and Their World [Rivendale P, 2007]) and Masking The Text: Literature & Mediation in the 1890s (Rivendale P, 2008).
Lucas exempts “Modern Love” from these strictures and remarks “the achievement of `Modern Love’ … is not equaled elsewhere in his work and… only very occasionally is it approached” (“Meredith as Poet” 32).
See, for instance, Ezra Pound’s comments that Meredith was “chiefly a stink” and the “mincing” possessor of a “foppy sickliness” (qtd. approvingly in Lucas, “Meredith’s Reputation” 1; 10).
Lucas’s destruction of Meredith was written in 1971. It would be interesting to know whether Lucas stands by his judgments today, in the wake of deconstruction and reader-response theory.
See Lowes, “Two Readings of Earth” and “An Unacknowledged Imagist,” Sassoon, Trevelyan, Kelvin, Crunden, Bernstein, Evans, Stevenson’s Darwin Among the Poets, Beach, and Elton, 2.324-63.
“The Woods of Westermain” was printed as the opening poem in Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth (1883). However, on republishing it -- first in his Selected Poems (1897), then in the exquisitely-produced The Nature Poems of George Meredith (1898) -- Meredith placed the poem last, preferring to open these selections with “Woodland Peace.” (Meredith’s scrupulousness in this respect is underscored by what one editor termed “his great objection to the appearance of any of his poems in miscellaneous collections” [Sharp 439]). In all three cases, the textual position suggests that Meredith and his publishers saw “The Woods of Westermain” as an organizing trope for the book as a whole, a suggestion reinforced by the recurrence of woodland settings in a number of poems from the 1883 collection and from A Reading of Earth (1888) that found their way into the selected collections.
Meredith reinforces the notion that his rhyme scheme is a “bramble” threatening to trip the unwary when he switches, without warning, from rhyming couplets to an alternately rhyming quatrain eleven lines into section III of “The Woods of Westermain.”
See M. H. Abrams, 47-69; Paul de Man 1-17; and Carol T. Christ 3-5.
For Dewey’s own attempt to carry out this expansion of art, see Dewey, Poems. As Jo Ann Boydston remarks in her Introduction (xxxiv), Dewey’s poetry is shot through with sharply-expressed nature images, reflecting his belief that “Nature signifies nothing less than the whole complex of the results of the interaction of man, with his memories and hopes, understanding and desire, with that world to which one-sided philosophy confines `nature’” (Art as Experience, qtd. in Boydston’s “Introduction to Dewey” liv). Dewey’s nature poems, as Boydston classes them, resemble Meredith’s poems in a number of their features.
Poems and Lyrics closes by identifying the meter of three poems (“Phoebus With Admetus,” “Melampus” and “Love in the Valley”). Meredith’s note on “Melampus” simply runs “Melampus:
- / - / - - / - / - - /
- / - / - - / - / - - /.”
Cf. Meredith: “The studious eye that reads/… in links divine with the lyrical tongue is bound…./ Pursue thy craft: it is music drawn of a fount/ To spring perennial; well-spring is common ground.” (“Melampus,” stanza 14).
See also Zumthor’s remark that “it is possible to determine inductively… the ancient orality of a poetic genre, or even a particular text, by means of contemporary practices” (45).
My comments here and henceforth concern the standard issue (375 copies) of Constable’s 1898 edition of Meredith’s Nature Poems. A large-paper issue, consisting of 150 copies signed by the book’s illustrator, William Hyde, bound in gray paper boards with a vellum shelfback, was published simultaneously with the standard issue.
This phrase is an adaptation of Cheryl Foster’s remark that “touch yields the texture of the world and texture enhances the ways by which we can know it” (49). Besides the fine laid paper on which the poems themselves are printed, the reader of The Nature Poems lifts a fine tissue paper guarding each of 20 photogravure illustrations (printed on a heavy art paper), while the endpapers are handmade Dickinson.
See William Morris’s comments on the “architecture” of the book, as well as his comment “To enjoy good houses and good books in self-respect and decent comfort, seems to me to be the pleasurable end towards which all societies of human beings ought now to struggle,” (“Some Thoughts On The Ornamented Manuscripts of the Middle Ages” 1).
For the emergence of photogravure as a medium for reproducing paintings, see Wakeman, 126-30.
Simon Houfe says that Hyde was one of several fin-de-siecle artists included in The Yellow Book on the grounds of his work’s dissimilarity from that of Aubrey Beardsley (90).
Berleant defines a participatory landscape as one in which the landscape absorbs or “surrounds us… as it would if one were standing in that actual space” and “we look not at the painting as an integral object but into the painting, into its space” (Art and Engagement 69). As a result, the “individual is no longer a spectator, distantly removed from objects and events and viewing them with uninvolved objectivity. The spectator has been transformed into an actor, wholly implicated in the same continuum in which everyone else is involved” (59-60). By contrast, the panoramic landscape “vividly expresses Newtonian space. It emphasizes physical distance and breadth of scope, offering a primarily visual experience that both rests on a sense of separation… and conveys that separation in pictorial form” (Art and Engagement 63).
“I would be hard pressed to say where the painting is I am looking at. For I do not look at it as one looks at a thing, fixing it in its place. My gaze wanders within it as in the halos of Being. Rather than seeing it, I see according to, or with, it” (Merleau-Ponty 126).
“A picture must be held vertically before the observer. A mosaic lies at his feet. Despite this distinction, it is customary to regard the graphic arts as paintings. Nevertheless, the distinction is very important and far-reaching…. We might say that there are two sections through the substance of the world: the longitudinal section of painting and the cross-section of certain pieces of graphic art. The longitudinal section seems representational; it somehow contains… objects. The cross-section seems symbolic; it contains signs. Or is it only when we read that we place the page horizontally before us?” (Benjamin, “Painting and the Graphic Arts” 82).
Benjamin might say that, as a result of Hyde’s equivocal embrace of his graphic medium, we feel unsure whether Hyde’s picture unfolds as a discrete system of symbolic “signs,” waiting to be deciphered by an attentive “reader,” or conversely whether it consists of painting’s representational “marks,” whose decipherment is a second-order activity. See Benjamin, “Painting, or Signs and Marks,” 83-86, esp. his remark “the sign is printed on something, whereas the mark emerges from it” (84).
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