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Name:Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Birth Year:1828
Death Year:1882
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English poet and painter, whose full baptismal name was Gabriel Charles Dante, was born on the 12th of May 1828, at 38 Charlotte Street, Portland Place, London. He was the first of the two Sons and the second of the four children of Gabriele Rossetti (1783 - 1854), an Italian poet and liberal, who, about 1824, after many vicissitudes connected with the part he played in the Naples reform movement against Ferdinand I., came to England, where he married in 1826 Frances Mary Polidori (d. 1886), sister of Byron's physician, Dr John Polidori, and daughter of a Tuscan, Gaetano Polidori, who had in early youth been Alfieri's secretary and who had married an English lady. In 1831 he became professor of Italian in King's College, London, and afterwards achieved a recognized position as a subtle and original, if eccentric, commentator on Dante. In 1852 he published a volume of Italian religious poems. His family, besides Dante Gabriel, consisted of Maria Francesca (1827 - 1876), who eventually entered an Anglican sisterhood - she is known to Dante scholars by her valuable Shadow of Dante; William Michael (b. 1829), a well-known man of letters who from 1845 to 1894 was in the Inland Revenue Office - he married a daughter of Ford Madox Brown; and Christina, the poet. The literary spirit was strongly entrenched here; and the talent which was always distinguished in William Michael rose to the height of rare genius in Dante Gabriel and Christina.

Dante Rossetti's education was begun at a private school in Foley Street, Portland Place, where he remained, however, only nine months, from the autumn of 1835 to the summer of 1836. He next went (in the autumn of 1836) to King's College School, where he remained till the summer of 1843, having reached the fourth class. From early childhood he had displayed a marked propensity for drawing and painting. It had therefore from the first been tacitly assumed that his future career would be an artistic one, and he left school early. In Latin, however, he was already fairly proficient for his age; French he knew well; Italian he had spoken. from childhood, and he had some German lessons about 1844 - 45. But, although he learned enough German to be able to translate the Arme Heinrich of Hartmann von Aue, and some portions of the Nibelungenlied, he afterwards forgot the language almost entirely. His Greek too, such as it had been, he lost. On leaving school he went (1843) to Cary's Art Academy (previously called Sass's), near Bedford Square, and thence obtained admission to the Royal Academy Antique School towards 1846. Of the artistic education of foreign travel Rossetti had very little. But in early life he made a short tour in Belgium, where he was indubitably much impressed and influenced by the works of Van Eyck at Ghent and Memling at Bruges.

Such was Rossetti's advent in art under the Pre-Raphaelite banner. The reception of his first works was not encouraging. But of Rossetti's immediate circle it has been truly said: "It appears that of seven young men and Brethren five have attained eminent positions, four of them being pre-eminent, although for years after the society was formed no single member, whatever his position might be, escaped insult, obloquy and wicked and malicious misrepresentation. The more conspicuous the Brother, the more outrageously was he attacked." No estimate of Rossetti's genius, his triumph and his life as a whole can be justly based without ample allowance being made for the circumstances which attended his advent as a painter. Ecce Ancilla Domini! the smaller picture which is now in the National Gallery of British Art at Millbank, was the one perfect outcome of the original motive of the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood by its representative and typical member. It is replete with the mystical mood which then ruled the painter's mind; that mood chose what may be called virginal white and its harmonies as its aptest coloration, and the intense light of morning sufficed for its tonality. It was exhibited at the Portland Gallery in 1850. After these pictures were finished, the outside world saw no more of Rossetti as a painter until it had prepared itself to see modern art from a higher plane than before.

In December 1810 there appeared the first number of The Germ, a magazine (which lasted for only four numbers) in which Rossetti had a leading place as the poet in verse and prose. The influence of Robert Browning upon Rossetti was more potent in The Germ than in that splendid romance in water-colours called The Laboratory, where a court lady of the ancien regime visits an old poison-monger to obtain from him a fatal potion for her rival in love. This wonderful gem of colour, glowing in lurid and wicked passion and voluptuous suggestion, marked the opening of the artist's second period and signalized his departure from that phase of Pre-Raphaelitism of which Ecce Andilla Domini! was the crowning achievement, and, so far as he was concerned, the artistic ne plus ultra. Millais and the other Brothers remained faithful during several years yet to come. Later in 1850, Rossetti produced the original, which is in ink, of the famous Hesterna Rosa, a gambling scene of men and their mistresses in a tent by lamplight, while pallid dawn gathers force between the trees without. Then came from his hands Borgia, which, like The Laboratory, is in water-colours, and, like Hesterna Rosa, is a sardonic tragedy. How they met Themselves came next, and, in illustrating a legend similar to that of the Doppelganger, affirmed the force, the originality and the tragic passion of Rossetti's genius. Two lovers are walking in a twilight wood, where they are confronted suddenly by their apparitions, portending death. The year 1852 produced Giotto painting Dante's Portrait, and saw a new development of the painter's mind and mood, dashed with a humour not often to be seen in him. In its somewhat dry coloration it differed from the ardent jewel-like glow and deeper gloom of Borgia and its successor and the sumptuous visions of womanhood in later pictures.

Rossetti's sole contribution of the sort which Mr Holman Hunt affected, was begun somewhere about this period; but this piece of pictorial moralizing (the analogue of the poet's own Jenny ), vigorous and intensely pathetic as it is, was never really finished by its author, being, indeed, far remote from Rossetti's inner self, which was rather over-scornful of didactic art, and thoroughly indisposed towards attempts to ameliorate anybody's condition by means of pictures. Nor did the stringency of naturalistic painting suit his mood or his experience. Nevertheless, what is his in the existing picture remains a masterpiece of poetry with exquisitely finished parts.

Passing a few fine but comparatively unimportant drawings, such as Lancelot and Guinevere at the Tomb of Arthur, Lancelot looking at the Dead Lady of Shalott, Mariana of the South, Sir Galahad, The Blue Closet, and various works owing subjects to the Arthurian cycle of romances, we may note that the artist illustrated by five cuts Poems by Alfred Tennyson, on which Millais and Mr Holman Hunt were also engaged, and which was published by Moxon in 1857. As in Ecce Ancilla Domini! we had virginal white and morning light employed to strengthen the mystical significance of the design, so in Borgia Venetian voluptuousness and sensuous splendours obtained, and in The Blue Closet is a very potent and suggestive exercise intended to symbolize the association of colour with music. The last is one of the subtlest of the artist's "inventions," and it shows how he had developed upon Borgia an artistic sympathy which is but too likely to be caviare to the general. The Wedding of St George is not so fine; nor was Lancelot's Dream of the Sangreal; Rossetti's part in the luckless decorations of the Oxford Union (1857 - 58); nor are Guinevere and Sir Lancelot, Galahad in the Chapel and other Arthurian examples quite worthy of his art. Bocca Baciata, the super-sensuous portrait of a woman, a work of wonderful fire, and the pictures on the pulpit at Llandaff Cathedral, marked the expiration of the second epoch in Rossetti's art and the beginning of a new, the third, last and most powerful of all the phases of his career. The picture Dr Johnson at the Mitre, when the " pretty fools" consulted the lexicographer anent Methodism, is a good example of his humour.

In 1861 Rossetti produced several fine designs for stained glass, and in the revival of stained-glass painting as an. art he had a larger share than has frequently been ascribed to him. The practice of designing upon a large scale, and employment of masses of splendid though deep-toned colours, had probably something to do with the prodigious development of his powers and the enlargement of his views as regards painting which took effect at this period (1862 - 63). At this time a striking and highly imaginative triptych, representing three events in the careers of Paolo and Francesca, was produced; it is a great improvement upon an earlier design. There is unprecedented energy in the group of the lovers embracing in the garden-house just as they have paused in reading the fatal romance. The composition of this group, with the circular window behind their figures, is as fine as it was comparatively novel in Rossetti's practice. Its lurid coloration was so thoroughly in harmony with the pathos of the subject that in this respect the work excelled all the painter had previously produced. The same elements, energy, a sympathetic and poetic scheme of colour, and composition of a fine order, combined with far greater force and originality in The Bride, or The Beloved, that magnificent illustration of The Song of Solomon. The last named is a life-size group of powerfully coloured and diversely beautiful damsels accompanying their mistress with music and with song on her way to the bridegroom. This picture, as regards its brilliance, finish, the charms of four lovely faces and the splendour of its lighting, occupies a great place in the highest grade of modern art of all the world. It is likewise, so far as the qualities named are concerned, the crowning piece of Rossetti's art, and stands for him much as the Sacred and Profane Love of Titian represents that master. Very fine, indeed, but hardly so passionate and virile, is the Beata Beatrix, now in the National Gallery of British Art with Ecce Ancilla Domini! which he produced thirteen years earlier. These works belong to a category of fine and quite original examples.

In 1857, Rossetti, when in Oxford with William Morris, conceived the design of filling the bays above the gallery in the then new Union debating room (now the library) with paintings from the Morte d'Arthur, and he enlisted the co-operation of several of his artistic circle, including Burne-Jones and William Morris, in the work, which was begun in August. Morris's picture was Sir Palomides watching Tristram and Iseult; Burne-Jones's Nimue luring Merlin. Unfortunately the walls were too new and not properly prepared for painting; the colour soon began to fade and wear off, and in the course of twenty years or so the pictures became almost indistinguishable. The group comprises paintings by which Rossetti is best known, such as Proserpina in Hades, which is, on the whole, perhaps the most original, if not indeed the most poetical and powerful, of all his output; Sibylla Palmifera, Venus Verticordia, Lilith (the better of the two versions is now referred to), Washing Hands, Monna Vanna, Ii Ramoscello, Aurea Catena, La Pia, Rosa Triplex, Veronica Veronese, La Ghirlandata, Pandora, The Blessed Damozel, and, last and largest, but not, perhaps, the greatest of his paintings (a distinction for which The Bride and Proserpina must contend), the famous Dante's Dream, now in the Walker Art Gallery at Liverpool. Besides these, Rossetti produced a large number of fine things. Nearly the whole of them were exhibited by the Royal Academy and at the Burlington Fine Art Club in 1883, after their author's death.

Meanwhile, the literary side of Rossetti had developed pan passu with his achievements as a painter. The goal before the young Rossetti's eyes was to reach through art the forgotten world of old romance - that world of wonder and mystery and spiritual beauty which the old masters knew and could have painted had not lack of science, combined with slavery to monkish traditions of asceticism, crippled their strength. In that great rebellion against the renascence of classicism which (after working much good and much harm) resulted in 18th century materialism - in that great movement of man's soul which may be appropriately named "the Renascence of the Spirit of Wonder in Poetry and Art " - he had become the acknowledged protagonist before ever the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was founded, and so he remained down to his last breath. It was by inevitable instinct that Rossetti turned to that mysterious side of nature and man's life which to other painters of his time had been a mere fancy-land, to be visited, if at all, on the wings of sport. For if there is any permanent vitality in the Renascence of Wonder in modern Europe, if it is really the inevitable expression of the soul of man in a certain stage of civilization (when the sanctions which have made and moulded society are found to be not absolute and eternal, but relative, mundane, ephemeral and subject to the higher sanctions of unseen powers that work behind "the shows of things"), then perhaps one of the first questions to ask in regard to any imaginative painter of the 19th century is: In what relation did he stand to the newly awakened spirit of romance? Had he a genuine and independent sympathy with that temper of wonder and mystery which all over Europe had preceded and now followed the temper of imitation, prosaic acceptance, pseudo-classicism and domestic materialism? or was his apparent sympathy with the temper of wonder, reverence and awe the result of artistic environment dictated to him by other and more powerful and original souls around him?

We do not say that the mere fact of a painter's or a poet's showing but an imperfect sympathy with the Renascence of Wonder is sufficient to place him below a poet in whom that sympathy is more nearly complete, but we do say that, other things being equal or anything like equal, a painter or poet of this time is to be judged very much by his sympathy with that great movement, which we call the Renascence of Wonder because the word "romanticism" never did express it even before it had been vulgarized by French poets, dramatists, doctrinaires and literary harlequins. To struggle against the prim traditions of the 18th century, the unities of Aristotle, the delineation of types instead of characters, as Chateaubriand, Madame de Stael, Balzac and Hugo struggled, was well. But in studying Rossetti's works we reach the very key of those "high palaces of romance" which the English mind had never, even in the 18th century, wholly forgotten, but whose mystic gates no Frenchman ever yet unlocked. Not all the romantic feeling to be found in all the French romanticists (with their theory that not earnestness but the grotesque is the life-blood of romance) could equal the romantic spirit expressed in a single picture or drawing of Rossetti's, such, for instance, as Beata Beatrix or Pandora. For, while the French romanticists - inspired by the theories (drawn from English exemplars) of Novalis, Tieck and Herder - cleverly simulated the old romantic feeling, the "beautifully devotional feeling" which Holman Hunt speaks of, Rossetti was steeped in it: he was so full of the old frank childlike wonder and awe which preceded the great renascence of materialism that he might have lived and worked amidst the old masters. Hence, in point of design, so original is he that to match such ideas as are expressed in Lilith, Hesterna Rosa, Michael Scott's Wooing, the Sea Spell, &c., we have to turn to the sister art of poetry, where only we can find an equally powerful artistic representation of the idea at the core of the old romanticism - the idea of the evil forces of nature assailing man through his sense of beauty. We must turn, we say, not to art - not even to the old masters themselves - but to the most perfect efflorescence of the poetry of wonder and mystery - to such ballads as the Demon Lover, to Coleridge's Christabel and Kubla Khan, to Keats's La Belle Dame sans Merci, for parallels to Rossetti's most characteristic designs. Now, although the idea at the heart of the highest romantic poetry (allied perhaps to that apprehension of the warring of man's soul with the appetites of the flesh which is the basis of the Christian idea) may not belong exclusively to what we call the romantic temper (the Greeks, and also most Asiatic peoples, were more or less familiar with it, as we see in the Saldmdn and Absal of Jami), yet it became peculiarly a romantic note, as is seen from the fact that in the old masters it resulted in that asceticism which is its logical expression and which was once an inseparable incident of all romantic art. But in order to express this stupendous idea as fully as the poets have expressed it, how is it possible to adopt the asceticism of the old masters? This is the question that Rossetti asked himself, and answered by his own progress in art. In all of his pictures, the poorest and the best, is displayed that power which Blake calls vision - the power which, as he finely says, is "surrounded by the daughters of inspiration," the power, that is, of seeing imaginary objects and dramatic actions - physically seeing them as well as mentally - and flashing them upon the imaginations (even upon the corporeal senses) of others.

Mr W. M. Rossetti (in the Preface to the Collected Works, 1886) has given an interesting account of his brother's literary nurturing. Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Byron, the Bible were the earliest influences: then Shelley, Mrs Browning, the older English and Scottish ballads, and Dante. Afterwards he preferred Keats to Shelley. By 1847 he was "deep in Robert Browning." Malory's Monte d'Arthur, about 1856, engrossed him; Victor Hugo and De Musset, among French poets, were his delight. In his last years he had an enthusiasm for Chatterton. From childhood's days he had loved to compose, but The Germ (1850) contained Rossetti's first published prose or verse. In it appeared The Blessed Damozel, the prose poem Hand and Soul, six sonnets and four lyrics. The Blessed Damozel was written so early as 1847 or 1848. Sister Helen was produced in its original form in 1850 or 1851. His translations from the early Italian poets also began as far back as 1845 or 1846, and may have been mainly completed by 1849. He published a volume of The Early Italian Poets (Dante and his Circle) in 1861. In 1856 he contributed to the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, in which among other things the Burden of Nineveh appeared. Materials for a volume of original poetry accumulated slowly, and these having been somewhat widely read in manuscript had a very great influence upon contemporary poetic literature long before their appearance in print. He had intended to publish a volume in 1862, but the death of his wife (see below) caused its postponement till 1870. In poetry no less than in art what makes Rossetti so important a figure is the position he took up with regard to the modern revival of the "romantic" spirit. The Renascence of Wonder culminates in Rossetti's poetry as it culminates in his painting. The poet who should go beyond Rossetti would pass out of the realm of poetry into pure mysticism, as certain of his sonnets show. Fine as are the sonnets (of which the sonnet sequence, the House of Life, in the 1881 volume, may be specially mentioned), it is in his romantic ballads that Rossetti (notwithstanding a certain ruggedness of movement) shows his greatest strength. Sister Helen, The Blessed Damozel, Staff and Scrip, Eden Bower, Troy Town, Rose Mary, as representing the modern revival of the true romantic spirit, take a place quite apart from the other poetry of the time.

Rossetti's poetry, and his prose too, is marked by an extraordinary fastidiousness of expression and beauty of diction; the form and colour of his style are alike marvellous in clearness and loveliness of language. But the dominant characteristic, after all, is the underlying idea, the romantic motive. By the revival of the romantic spirit in English poetry we mean something much more than the revival, at the close of the 18th century, of natural language, the change discussed by Wordsworth in his famous Preface, and by Coleridge in his comments thereon - that change of diction and of poetic methods which is commonly supposed to have arisen with Cowper, or, if not with Cowper, with Burns. The truth is that Wordsworth and Coleridge were too near the great changes in question, and they themselves took too active a part in those changes, to hold the historical view of what the changes really were. Important as was the change in poetic methods which they so admirably practised and discussed, important as was the revival of natural language, which then set in, it was not nearly so important as that other revival which had begun earlier and of which it was the outcome - the revival of the romantic spirit, the Renascence of Wonder, even beneath the weight of 18th-century diction, the first movement of which is certainly English, and neither German nor French in its origin, and can be traced through Chatterton, Macpherson and the Percy Ballads.

As a mere question of methods, a reaction against the poetic diction of Pope and his followers was inevitable. But, in discussing the romantic temper in relation to the overthrow of the bastard classicism and didactic materialism of the 18th century, we must go deeper than mere artistic methods in poetry. When closely examined, it is in method only that the poetry of Cowper is different from the ratiocinative and unromantic poetry of Dryden and Pope and their followers. Pope treated prose subjects in the ratiocinative - that is to say, the prose - temper, but in a highly artificial diction which people agreed to call poetic. Cowper treated prose subjects too - treated them in the same prose temper, but used natural language; a noble thing to do, no doubt. But this was only a part (and by no means the chief part) of the great work achieved by English poetry at the close of last century. That period, to be sure, rendered obsolete the poetic diction of Pope; but it introduced something more precious still - entire freedom from the hard rhetorical materialism imported from France; it gave a new seeing to English eyes, which were opened once more to the mystery and the wonder of the universe and the romance of man's destiny; it revived, in short, the romantic spirit, but the romantic spirit enriched by all the clarity and sanity that the renascence of classicism was able to lend. Of the great movement which substituted for the didactic materialism of the 18th century the new romanticism of the 19th, the leaders were Coleridge and Scott, admirably followed by Byron, Shelley and Keats. Not that Wordsworth was a stranger to the romantic temper. The magnificent image of Time and Death under the yew tree is worthy of any romantic poet that ever lived, yet it cannot be said that he escaped save at moments from the comfortable 18th-century didactics, or that he was a spiritual writer in the sense that Coleridge, Blake and Shelley were spiritual writers.

Of the true romantic feeling, the ever-present apprehension of the spiritual world and of that struggle of the soul with earthly conditions which we have before spoken of, Rossetti's poetry is as full as his pictures - so full, indeed, that it was misunderstood by certain critics, who found in the most spiritualistic of poets and painters the founder of a "fleshly school." Although it cannot be said that The Blessed Damozel or Sister Helen or Rose Mary reaches to the height of the masterpiece of Coleridge, the purely romantic temper was with Rossetti a more permanent and even a more natural temper than with any other 19th-century poet, even including the author of Christabel himself. As to the other 19th-century poets, though the Ettrick Shepherd in The Queen's Wake shows plenty of the true feeling, Hogg's verbosity is too great to allow of really successful work in the field of romantic ballad, where concentrated energy is one of the first requisites. And even Dobell's Keith of Raveiston has hardly been fused in the fine atmosphere of fairyland. Byron's footlight bogies and Shelley's metaphysical abstractions had of course but very little to do with the inner core of romance, and we have only to consider Keats, to whose La Belle Dame sans Merci and Eve of St Mark Rossetti always acknowledged himself to be deeply indebted. In the famous close of the seventh stanza of the Ode to a Nightingale - "Charmed magic casements opening on the foam of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn."

There is of course the true thrill of the poetry of wonder, and it is expressed with a music, a startling magic, above the highest reaches of Rossetti's poetry. But, without the evidence of Keats's two late poems, La Belle Dame sans Merci and the Eve of St Mark, who could have said that Keats showed more than a passing apprehension of that which is the basis of the romantic temper - the supernatural? In contrasting Keats with Rossetti, it must always be remembered that Keats's power over the poetry of wonder came to him at one flash, and that it was not (as we have said elsewhere) "till late in his brief life that his bark was running full sail for the enchanted isle where the old ballad writers once sang and where now sate the wizard Coleridge alone." Though outside Coleridge's work there had been nothing in the poetry of wonder comparable with Keats's La Belle Dame sans Merci, the latter had previously in Lamia entirely failed in rendering the romantic idea of beauty as a maleficent power. The reader, owing to the atmosphere surrounding the dramatic action being entirely classic, does not believe for a moment in the serpent woman. The classic accessories suggested by Burton's brief narrative hampered Keats where to Rossetti (as we see in Pandora, Cassandra and Troy Town) they would simply have given birth to romantic ideas. It is perhaps with Coleridge alone that Rossetti can be compared as a worker in the Renascence of Wonder. Although his apparent lack of rhythmic spontaneity places him below the great master as a singer (for in these mirades of Coleridge's genius poetry ceases to appear as a fine art at all - it is the inspired song of the changeling child "singing - dancing to itself"), in permanence of the romantic feeling, in vitality of belief in the power of the unseen, Rossetti stands alone. Even the finest portions of his historical ballad The King's Tragedy are those which deal with the supernatural.

The events of Rossetti's life may be briefly summarized. In the spring of 1860 he married Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall, a milliner's assistant, who, being very beautiful, was constantly painted and drawn by him. From 1856 onwards he had been very intimate with William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, who had the greatest affection and artistic admiration for him. Mrs Rossetti, whose health was delicate, had one still-born child in 1861, and she died from an overdose of laudanum in February 1862. Rossetti then moved from Blackfriars to 16 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, where for a short time George Meredith, A. C. Swinburne and W. M. Rossetti lived with him. Mrs Rossetti's own water-colour designs show an extraordinary genius for invention and a rare instinct for colour. Rossetti felt her death so acutely that in the first paroxysm of his grief he insisted upon his poems (then in manuscript) being buried in her coffin. But in 1869 the manuscripts were disinterred, and published in 1870. From this time to his death he continued to write poems and produce pictures - in the latter relying more and more upon his manipulative skill but exercising less and less his exhaustless faculty of invention.

In 1871 an unsigned article in the Contemporary Review (by Robert Buchanan) on the Fleshly School of Poetry made a fierce attack on Rossetti's poems from what was intended to be a moral point of view, to which he answered by one on the Stealthy School of Criticism. The attack was deeply felt by him, and increased his tendency - previously tempered by natural high spirits - towards gloomy brooding. About 1868 the curse of the artistic and poetic temperament, insomnia, attacked him. One of the most distressing effects of this malady is a nervous shrinking from personal contact with any save a few intimate and constantly seen friends. This peculiar kind of nervousness may be aggravated by the use of narcotics, and in his case was aggravated to a very painful degree; at one time he saw scarcely any one save his own family and immediate family connexions and the present writer. He was frequently away with William Morris at Kelmscot, in Oxfordshire. During the time that his second volume of original poetry, Ballads and Sonnets, was passing through the press (in 1881) his health began to give way, and he left London for Cumberland. A stay of a few weeks in the Vale of St John, however, did nothing to improve his health, and he returned much shattered. He then went to Birchington-on-Sea, but received no benefit from the change, though affectionately tended by friends like Hall Caine and others already mentioned; and, gradually sinking from a complication of disorders, he died on Sunday the 9th of April 1882.

In all matters of taste Rossetti's influence has been immense. The purely decorative arts he may be said to have rejuvenated directly or indirectly. And he left the deepest impression upon the poetic methods of his time. One of the most wonderful of Rossetti's endowments, however, was neither of a literary nor an artistic kind: it was that of a rare and most winning personality which attracted towards itself, as if by an unconscious magnetism, the love of all his friends, the love, indeed, of all who knew him. [Adapted from Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)]

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