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Goethe - Werther, Clavigo 1774

( Originally Published 1913 )[an error occurred while processing this directive]

IN his fortieth year Goethe wrote to Wieland : "Without compulsion, there is in my case no hope." So it was with him at every period of his life ; without some immediate impulse out of his own experience or from the urgency of friends he was incapable of the sustained inspiration requisite to the execution of a prolonged artistic whole. We have seen how he dallied with the subject of Gotz von Berlichingen, and how it was only at the instance of his sister Cornelia that he concentrated his energies in throwing it into dramatic form. In the case of Werther we have an illustration of the same characteristic. Shortly after leaving Wetzlar, on hearing the news of Jerusalem's death, there arose in him a pressing desire to embody his late experience in some imaginative shape ; and in the course of the following year he actually addressed himself to the task. But his inspiration flagged, and it was not till the beginning of 1774 that a new experience supplied a fresh impulse constraining him to complete the " prodigious little work " which was to take his contemporaries by storm.

We have it from Goethe's own hand that it was a new and " painful situation " that gave him the necessary stimulus to resume his work on W erther and to carry it to a conclusion. We have seen how on leaving Wetzlar in the autumn of 1772 he had made the acquaintance of the family von la Roche, and how he had been captivated by the elder daughter, Maximiliane. Since then he had kept up a sentimental correspondence with the mother in which we have occasional references to his continued interest in the daughter. " Your Maxe," he wrote in August, 1773, " I cannot do without so long as I live, and I shall always venture to love her." This was, of course, in the current style of the time, but a situation arose which made such amorous trifling dangerous. ° On January 9th, 1774, the Fraulein von la Roche was married to Peter Brentano, a dealer in herrings, oil, and cheese, a widower with five children, with whom she settled in Frankfort. Goethe immediately became an assiduous frequenter of the Brentano household, where he was not unwelcome to the young wife, whose new surroundings were in unpleasant contrast to those of the home she had left. But Brentano was not so magnanimous as Kestner, and a fortnight had not passed before there were " painful scenes " between him and Goethe. On the 21st Goethe wrote as follows to the mother of Madame Brentano : " If you knew what passed within me before I avoided the house, you would not think, dear Mama, of luring me back to it again. I have in these frightful moments suffered for all the future ; I am now at peace, and in peace let me remain."' He had now gone the round of all the experiences embodied in Werther; on February 1st he resumed the discontinued work, and, writing " almost in a state of somnambulism," finished it in a few weeks.

But besides his own immediate personal experience, there went other influences to the production of Werther which affected alike its form and its contents. In his Autobiography Goethe has minutely analysed these influences, and the most potent of them he traces to the impression made by English literature on himself and his contemporaries. What impressed them as the prevailing note of that literature was a melancholy disillusion which regarded life as a sorry business at the best, and Goethe specifies Young, Gray, and Ossian as representative interpreters of this mood. In verses like these, he says, we have the precise expression of the moral disease which he has depicted in Werther :-

To griefs congenial prone,

More wounds than nature gave he knew ;

While misery's form his fancy drew

In dark ideal hues and horrors not its own !

If English literature contributed to the tone of feeling in Werther, it also, though Goethe does not mention the fact, suggested the literary form in which it is cast. In the case of his former loves, his emotions had found vent in a succession of lyrics thrown off as occasion prompted, but his later experiences had been of a more complex nature, and demanded a larger canvas for their development. It would appear that Goethe's original intention was to adopt the dramatic form which had been so successful in the case of Got; and we are led to believe that, in accordance with this intention, he actually made a beginning of his work. In the interval between his discontinuing and resuming it, however, he changed his mind ; and in the form in which we have it Werther is mainly composed of letters addressed by its central character to an absent friend. There can be little doubt that the epistolary form was suggested by a book with which Goethe was familiar, and which had been received with enthusiasm in Germany as in other continental countries—Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe (1747-8). Richardson's example, moreover, had been followed in another work which had achieved as sensational as success as Clarissa Rousseau's Nouvelle Heloise. In form and substance Werther was as much inspired by Richardson and Rousseau as Glitz had been by Shakespeare, yet in Werther, as in Gotz, the world recognised an original creation which bore a new message to every heart capable of receiving it.

The portentous work was published in the autumn of 1774, but the form in which we now have it belongs to a later date. In the first complete edition of Goethe's Works (1787), Werther appeared with certain modifications, which did not, however, as in the case of Gotz, organically affect its original form.' Expressions which to Goethe's maturer taste appeared objectionable were altered—not always, German critics are disposed to think, in the direction of improvement ; the story of the unfortunate peasant in whose fate Werther saw an image of his own, was introduced ; and, in deference to the feelings of Kestner and Lotte, the characters of the two persons in the book with whom readers identified them were presented in a somewhat more favourable light.

With what degree of similitude Goethe has portrayed himself in the character of Werther must necessarily be matter of opinion, but that his work was essentially drawn from his own experience the merest outline of it conclusively shows. Equally in the case of the two parts of which the book is composed we have the presentment of successive phases of emotion through which we know that he had himself passed when he sat down to write it. The first part, the substance of which was probably drafted in the year 1773, is all but an exact transcript of Goethe's own experience from the day he settled in Wetzlar till the day he left it. Like Goethe himself, Werther settles in the spring of the year in a country town, unattractive like Wetzlar, but also, like Wetzlar, situated in a charming neighbourhood. His first few weeks there are spent as Goethe spent them—in daydreaming and vague longings ; finding distraction alternately in sketching, in reading Homer, in intercourse with children and simple people, in contemplations on nature and the life of man, inspired by Spinoza and Rousseau. Then befalls the incident which also befell Goethe : he meets a girl at a ball, and he is overmastered by a passion which changes the current of his life and paralyses every other motive at its source. At the first meeting Werther learns that Charlotte is betrothed,1 but her betrothed is absent, and, oblivious of the future, he for a few weeks lives in a state of intoxicating bliss. Albert, who, like Charlotte, has in the first part all the characteristics of his original, at length appears on the scene, and all three are gradually convinced that the situation is intolerable. There are " painful scenes," such as, according to Kestner, actually happened in Goethe's own case ; and after an agonising struggle with himself Werther succeeds in breaking away from the enchanted spot, the last conversation between the three turning on the prospect of a future life—a memory, as we have seen, of an actual talk between Lotte, Kestner, and Goethe. So ends the first part, which, with unimportant variations, is a close record of the circumstances of Goethe's own sojourn in Wetzlar.

A tragic end to Werther Goethe had before him from its first conception, as is proved by his eagerness to ascertain the details of Jerusalem's suicide. But to justify dramatically such an end to his hero, certain modifications in the relations of all the three characters were rendered necessary, and again his own experience suggested the mode of treatment. In the uncomfortable relations that had arisen between himself and the Brentanos, husband and wife, he found a situation which would naturally involve a catastrophe in the case of a character constituted like Werther. When in February, 1774, therefore, he sat down to complete the tale of Werther's woes, it was under a new inspiration that the characters of Albert and Charlotte fashioned themselves in his mind. Not Kestner and Lotte Buff, but the Brentanos, suggested their leading traits as well as the relations of all parties, which involved the closing tragedy. Albert becomes a jealous and somewhat morose husband, and Charlotte is depicted with the characteristics of Maxe Brentano rather than of Lotte Buff—with a more susceptible temperament and less self-control.

Goethe gave the blue eyes of Maxe to Charlotte. Lotte Buff's eyes were brown.

In the opening of the second part the character of Werther is further revealed in a new set of circumstances. Against his own inclinations he accepts an official appointment under an ambas sador at a petty German Court, and his helpless unfitness in this situation for the ordinary business of life may be regarded as a commentary on Goethe's own invincible distaste for the practice of his profession. Werther finds the ambassador intolerable ; and a public insult to which, as a commoner, he is subjected at a social gathering of petty nobility, drives him to resign his post. After a few months' residence with a prince, whose company in the end he finds uncongenial, he is irresistibly drawn to the scenes of his former happiness and misery. But in the interval an event happens which makes the renewal of old relations impossible. Charlotte and Albert have married, and the sight of Albert enjoying the privileges of a husband is a constant reminder of the hopelessness of his passion. Blank despair gradually takes possession of Werther's soul ; in the hopeless wail of Ossian he finds the only adequate expression of his fate.' In the commentary which Goethe introduces to prepare readers for Werther's suicide, he suggests another motive for the act besides Werther's infatuation for Charlotte, which Napoleon as well as other critics have regarded as a mistake in art. In his state of mental and moral paralysis, we are told, Werther recalled all the misfortunes of his past life, and specially the mortification he had received during his brief official experience. But on the mind of the reader this incidental suggestion of other motives makes little impression ; he feels that Werther's helpless abandonment to his passion for Charlotte is the central interest of the author himself, as it is a wholly adequate cause of the final catastrophe.

By the fulness of its revelation of himself and by the impression it made on the public mind Werther holds a unique place among the longer productions of Goethe. His own testimony, both at the time when it was written and in his later years, is conclusive proof of the degree to which it was a " general confession," as he himself calls it. " I have lent my emotions to his (Werther's) history," he wrote shortly after the completion of his work ; " and so it makes a wonderful whole." In one of the best-known passages of his Autobiography he tells how he morbidly dallied with the idea of suicide, and banished the obsession only by convincing himself that he had not the courage to plunge a dagger into his breast. In a remarkable passage, written in his sixty-third year to his Berlin friend, Zelter, whose son had committed suicide, he recalls with all seriousness the hypochondriacal promptings which in his own case might have driven him to the fate of Werther " When the tedium vitae takes possession of a man," he wrote, " he is to be pitied and not to be blamed. That all the symptoms of this wonderful, equally natural and unnatural, disease at one time also convulsed my inmost being, Werther, indeed, leaves no one in doubt. I know right well what resolves and what efforts it cost me at that time to escape the waves of death, as from many a later shipwreck I painfully rescued myself and with painful struggles recovered my health of mind." At a still later date (1824) Goethe expressed. himself with equal emphasis to the same purport. " That is a creation (Werther)," he told Eckermann, " which I, like the pelican, fed with the blood of my own heart. There is in it so much that was deepest in my own experience, so much of my own thoughts and sensations, that, in truth, a romance extending to ten such volumes might be made out of it. Since its appearance, I have read it only once, and have refrained from doing so again. It is nothing but a succession of rockets. I am uneasy when i look at it, and dread the return of the psychological condition out of which it sprang."

These repeated statements of Goethe, made at wide intervals of his life, sufficently prove what a large part of himself went to the making of Werther. Yet Werther was not Goethe. From the fate of Werther he was saved by two characteristics of which we have seen frequent evidence in his previous history. It was not in his nature to be dominated for any lengthened period by a single passion to the exclusion of every other interest. No sooner had he left Wetzlar than his heart was open to the charms of Maxe Brentano, and, during the months that followed, her image and that of Lotte Buff alternately distracted his susceptibilities. Byron declared that he was capable of only one passion at a time, but Goethe was always capable of at least two. The other characteristic equally distinguishes Goethe from Werther. " I turn in upon myself," Werther writes, " and find a world -but a world of presentiments and of dim desires, not a world of definite outlines and of living force." Of a " living force " in himself Goethe was never wholly unconscious ; the record of his creative efforts during the months that followed his leaving Wetzlar are sufficient evidence of the fact. The intellectual side of his nature—the impulse to know or to create—kept in check the emotional, and proved his safeguard in more crises than the Wertherian period during which, by his own testimony, he so narrowly escaped shipwreck.

The imprint of Goethe's character and genius which Werther made on the mind of his contemporaries was never effaced during his lifetime, and was even a source of embarrassment to him in his future development. For years after its appearance he found it necessary to travel incognito to avoid being pointed at as " the author of Werther "; and in the case of each of his subsequent productions the reading public had a feeling of disappointment that they were not receiving what they expected from the writer who had once so profoundly moved them. In truth, probably no book ever given to the world has made such an instantaneous, profound, and general sensation as Werther. The effect of Gotz von Berlichingen had as yet been confined to Germany ; on the publication of Werther its author became a European figure in the world of letters. In Germany Werther was hawked about as a chap-book ; within three years three translations appeared in France, and five years after its publication it was translated into English. The dress worn by Werther (borrowed from England), consisting of a blue coat, yellow vest, yellow hose, and top-boots, became the fashion of the day and was sported even in Paris.

Opinion in Germany had been divided on Gotz von Berlichingen, but the conflicting judgments on that work had turned only on questions of dramatic propriety. The questions raised by Werther, on the other hand, appeared to many to concern the very foundations of morality and of human responsibility. Suicide, it was indignantly clamoured, was sophistically justified in the person of Werther, and was clothed in such specious hues as to present it in the light of a natural means of escape from the troubles of life. On the ground of these supposed sinister implications the sale of Werther was prohibited in Leipzig under a penalty of ten thalers, a translation of it was forbidden in Denmark, and the Archbishop of Milan ordered it to be publicly burned in that town. There was, of course, no thought in Goethe's mind of recommending suicide by the example of Werther, but he felt the reproach keenly, and indignantly repudiated it. Yet, when a few years later, a young woman was found drowned in the IIm at Weimar Werther has been described as " the act of a conqueror and a high-priest of art, " and of the truth of this description we have interesting proof from Goethe's own hand. In Werther he had not only given to the world a likeness of himself ; in Albert and Charlotte he had exhibited two figures who were at once identified as Kestner and Lotte, now Kestner's wife. It was not only that domestic privacy was thus invaded, but the characters assigned to Albert and Charlotte were such as could not fail to give just offence to their originals. Yet in the triumph of the artist it seems never to have occurred to Goethe that Kestner and Lotte would resent the licence he had taken with them. On the eve of the publication of Werther he sent a copy of it to Lotte, informing her at the same time that he had kissed it a thousand times before sending it, and praying her not to make it public till it was given to the world at the approaching Leipzig fair. It came as a surprise to him, therefore, when he received a letter of reproach from Kestner, protesting against the injurious presentment of himself and his wife in the book. In a first reply, Goethe frankly. admitted his indiscretion, but in a second letter he took a bolder tone. " Oh ye unbelieving ones, I would proclaim ye of little faith," he wrote. "Could you but realise the thousandth part of what Werther is to a thousand hearts, you would not reckon the cost it has been to you. " Lotte and Kestner, from all we know of them, were both persons of sound nature, not unduly sensitive, and, in their hearts, they may not have been displeased at their association with the brilliant youth of genius on whom the eyes of the world were now turned. At all events, neither appears to have borne him a permanent grudge for presenting them to the public in such a dubious light. Though, as has already been said, correspondence between Goethe and them gradually became more and more intermittent, mutual respect and cordiality remained, and in later years we find Goethe in the capacity of sage adviser to the prudent Kestner.

The subsequent influence of Werther was at once more powerful and more enduring than the influence of Gotz von Berlichingen, and Goethe himself has suggested the reason. The so-called Werther " period," he says, belongs to no special age of the world's culture, but to the life of every free spirit that chafes under obsolete traditions, obstructed happiness, cramped activity, and unfulfilled desires. " A sorry business it would be," he adds, " if once in his life every one did not pass through an epoch when Werther appeared to have been specially written for him."2 The long series of imitations of Werther--Rene, Obermann, Childe Harold, Adolphe (to mention only the best-known)– -bears out Goethe's remark that Wertherism belongs to no particular age of the world, though it may assume various forms and be expressed in different tones. But in Goethe's little book the name and the thing Wertherisrn has received its " immortal cachet." To the intrinsic power of Werther it is the supreme tribute that Napoleon, the first European man in the world of action, as Goethe was the first in the world of thought, read it seven times in the course of his life, that he carried it with him as his companion in his Egyptian campaign, and that in his interview with Goethe he made it the principal theme of their conversation. To the literary youth of Germany, we are told, Werther no longer appeals ; but such statements can be based only on conjecture, and we may be certain that in all countries there are still to be found readers to whom the record of Werther's woes seems to have been written for themselves.'

By a curious coincidence Goethe had hardly made a " general confession " in the writing of Werther when he was led to make another " confession " in a work of less resounding notoriety, but equally interesting as a revelation of himself. In his Autobiography he has related the origin of the piece. In the spring of 1774 there fell into his hands the recently published Memoires of the French playwright Beaumarchais, which told a story that reawakened painful memories of his own past. Beaumarchais had two sisters in Madrid, one married to an architect ; the other, named Marie, betrothed to Clavigo, a publicist of rising fame. On Clavigo's promotion to the post of royal archivist he throws his betrothed over, and the news of his faithlessness brings Beaumarchais to Madrid. In an interview with Clavigo he compels him, under the threat of a duel, to write and subscribe a confession of his unjustifiable treachery. To avert exposure, however, Clavigo offers to renew his engagement to Marie, and Beaumarchais accepts the condition. Clavigo again plays false, and obtains from the authorities an order expelling Beaumarchais from Madrid. Through the good offices of a retired Minister, however, Beaumarchais succeeds in communicating the whole story to the king, with the result that Clavigo is dismissed from his post.

We see the points in the narrative of Beaumarchais which must have touched Goethe to the quick. He also had played the false lover to Friederike Brion, who, however, had no brother like Marie to call him to account. It was characteristic of him that, on reading the Memoire, it at once struck him as affording an appropriate theme for dramatic treatment, and it was further characteristic that he needed an immediate stimulus to incite him to the task. He has told us how the stimulus came. As a diversion to relieve the monotony of Frankfort society, the youths and maidens of Goethe's circle had arranged for a time to play at married couples, and, as it happened, the same maiden fell thrice to Goethe's lot.' At one of the meetings of the couples he read aloud the narrative of Beaumarchais, and his partner suggested that he should turn it into a play. The suggestion, he relates, supplied the needed stimulus, and a week later the completed play was read to the reassembled circle.

The first four Acts of the play, which Goethe entitled Clavigo, are simply the narrative of Beau marchais cut into scenes, and they contain long passages directly translated from the original— a proceeding which Goethe justifies by the example of " our progenitor Shakespeare." In the first Scene of the first Act we are introduced to Clavigo and Carlos discussing the prospects of the former. Clavigo, who is represented as a publicist of genius, with a great career before him, is distracted by the conflict between his ambition and the sense of honour and gratitude which should bind him to his betrothed Marie, a sickly girl, by position and character unsuited to be the helpmate of an ambitious man of the world. Unstable and irresolute, he is as clay in the hands of Carlos, who plays the part of the shrewd and cynical adviser to his friend, in whose genius and brilliant future he has unbounded confidence. As the result of their talk, Clavigo decides with some compunction to abandon Marie, and, as his fortunes rise, to find a more suitable mate. In the second Scene the other characters of the play are brought before us—Marie Beaumarchais, her sister Sophie, married to Guilbert, an architect, and Don Buenco, a disappointed lover of Marie. The theme of their conversation is the ingratitude and faithlessness of Clavigo, to whom, however? Marie, dying of consumption, still clings with fond idolatry. At the dose of the Scene Beaumarchais appears, breathing vengeance on Clavigo if he finds him without justification for his conduct. In the second Act, which consists of only one Scene, Beaumarchais carries out his purpose and compels Clavigo under threat of a duel to write with his own hand an abject acknowledgment of his baseness. In consistency with his fickle nature, however, Clavigo prays Beaumarchais to report to Marie his unfeigned remorse and his desire to renew their former relations. Beaumarchais agrees to convey the message, and departs under the impression that he has saved the honour of his sister. In the third Act Clavigo and Marie are reconciled, their marriage is arranged, and Beaumarchais destroys the incriminating document. The fourth Act consists of two Scenes. In the first, Carlos convinces Clavigo of his folly in compromising his career by a foolish union, and persuades him to break his pledge, undertaking at the same time to get Beaumarchais out of the way. The second Scene represents the dismay of the Guilbert household on the discovery of Clavigo's renewed treachery, Beaumarchais vowing vengeance on the double-dyed traitor, and Marie in a dying state attended by a hastily-summoned physician. In the fifth Act the play breaks with the narrative of Beaumarchais, which does not supply material for the necessary tragic conclusion, and is based on an old German ballad., with an evident recollection of the scene of Hamlet and Laertes at the grave of Ophelia. While stealing from his house under cover of night, as had been arranged with Carlos, Clavigo passes the Guilberts' door, where he sees three mourners standing with torches in their hands. On inquiry he learns that Marie Beaumarchais is dead ; and presently the body is brought forth attended by Guilbert, Don Buenco, and Beaumarchais. Then ensues a passionate scene in which Beaumarchais slays Clavigo, and the Act closes with expressions of tenderness and compunction nu the part of all the chief persons concerned.

In a letter to a friend' Goethe explained that in writing Clavigo he had blended the character and action of Beaumarchais with characters and actions drawn from his own experience ; and this description strictly corresponds with the play as we have it. Though in the first four Acts, as we have seen, the incidents are directly taken from Beaumarchais and many passages in them are simply translations, the characters of the leading personages—Clavigo, Carlos, Marie, and Beaumarchais —are entirely of Goethe's own creation. Moreover, in what is original in the dialogues there are touches everywhere introduced which are not to be found in the original, and which are precisely those that are of special interest for the student of Goethe. Of the play as a work of art he was himself complacently proud. It was written, as he tells us, with the express intention of proving to the world that he could produce a piece in strict accordance with the dramatic canons which he had flouted in Gotz von Berlichingen. " I challenge the most critical knife," he proudly wrote to the same correspondent, " to separate the directly translated passages from the whole without mangling it, without inflicting deadly wounds, not to say only on the narrative, but on the structure, the living organism of the piece." In Clavigo, at least, he has achieved what he failed to achieve in any other in the long series of his dramatic productions ; it proved a successful acting play, and is still produced with acceptance to the present time. Yet from the beginning those who have admired Goethe's genius most have shaken their heads over Clavigo. It was to be expected that the youthful geniuses of the Sturm und Drang would be wrathful at the apostacy of their protagonist, who in Gotz von Berlichingen had set at naught all the traditional rules of the drama. But more discerning critics, then and since, have expressed their dissatisfaction on other grounds. There are in Clavigo no elements of greatness such as appear even through the irnmaturities of Gotz and Werther. Clavigo himself is so poor a creature as to leave the reader with no other feeling for him than contempt ; Marie is characterless ; and the other persons in the play have not sufficient scope to become well-defined figures. And the last Act, the only original addition to Beaurnarchais' narrative, is in a style of cheap melodrama which, coming from the hand of Goethe, can be regarded only as a weak concession to the sentimentalism of the Darmstadt circle. " You must give us no more such stuff ; others can do that," was Merck's mordant comment on Clavigo. Merck's opinion may have been influenced by the fact that in the cynical Carlos there are unpleasing traits of himself, but succeeding admirers of the Master have for the most part been in agreement with him.

But if Clavigo is not to be ranked among the greater works of Goethe, as a biographical document it is even more important than Werther. In the Weislingen of Gotz he had drawn a portrait of himself, and n Clavigo he has drawn a similar portrait at fuller length. "I have been working at a tragedy, Clavigo," he wrote to a correspondent, " a modern anecdote dramatised with ail possible simplicity and sincerity ; my hero, an irresolute, half-great, half-little man, the pendant to Weislingen in Gotz, or rather Weislingen himself, developed into a leading character. In it," he adds, " there are scenes which I could only indicate in Gotz for fear of weakening the main interest." In Clavigo we have at once a fuller revelation of himself and of his own personal experience. He is here, in a manner, holding a dialogue with himself regarding his own character and his own past life. In the first Scene of the first Act we must recognise a vivid presentment of the state of Goethe's own feelings at the crisis when he abandoned Friederike. In such a passage as the following Carlos only expresses what must then have passed through Goethe's own mind " ad to marry ! to marry just when life ought to conic into its first full swing ; to settle down to humdrum domestic life ; to limit one's being, when one has not yet done with half of one's roving ; has not completed half of one's conquests!" Out of Goethe's own heart, also, must have come these words of Clavigo: " She [Marie] has vanished, clean vanished from my heart!. . That man is so fickle a being!" What was said of Werther as the counterpart of Goethe applies, of course, equally in the case of Clavigo. Goethe was not at any moment the feeble creature we have in Clavigo, yet in Clavigo's inconstancy and ambition, in his womanish susceptibility and the need of his nature for external stimulus and counsel, we have a portrayal of Goethe of which every trait holds true at all periods of his life. In the Maries of Gotz and Clavigo, both betrayed by false lovers, Goethe tells us that we may find a penitent confession of his own conduct towards Friederike. But assuredly it was not with the primary intention of making this confession that either play was written. Both plays, in truth, are evidence of what is borne out in the long series of his imaginative productions from Götz to the Second Part of Faust ; their conception, their informing spirit, their essential tissue come immediately from Goethe's own intellectual and emotional experience. Objective dramatic treatment of persons or events was incompatible with that passionate interest in the problems of nature and human life by which he was possessed at every stage of his development.

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