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Default Various Poems and Backgrounds


A POET like Shakespeare may frequently have been asked to write verses for a variety of occasions, and it is entirely possible that he is the author of song lyrics and other short poems published without attribution or attributed only to ‘W.S.’ The poems in this section (arranged in an approximate chronological order) were all explicitly ascribed to him either in his lifetime or not long afterwards. Because they are short it is impossible to be sure, on stylistic grounds alone, of Shakespeare’s authorship; but none of the poems is ever attributed to anyone else.

‘Shall I die?’ is transcribed, with Shakespeare’s name appended, in a manuscript collection of poems, dating probably from the late 1630s, which is now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford; another, unascribed version is in the Beinecke Library, Yale University. The poem exhibits many parallels with plays and poems that Shakespeare wrote about 1593-5. Its stanza form has not been found elsewhere in the period, but most closely resembles Robin Goodfellow’s lines spoken over the sleeping Lysander (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 3.2.36-46). Extended over nine stanzas it becomes a virtuoso exercise: every third word rhymes. The strain shows in a number of ellipses, but there is no strong reason to doubt the ascription: the Oxford manuscript is generally reliable, and if the poem is of no great consequence, that might explain why it did not reach print.

Perhaps the most trivial verse ever ascribed to a great poet is the ‘posy’ said to have accompanied a pair of gloves given by a Stratford schoolmaster, Alexander Aspinall, to his second wife, whom he married in 1594. The ascription is found in a manuscript compiled by Sir Francis Fane of Bulbeck (1611-80).

In 1599 William Jaggard published a collection of poems, which he ascribed to Shakespeare, under the title The Passionate Pilgrim. It includes versions of two of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (which we print as Alternative Versions), three extracts from Love’s Labour’s Lost, which had already appeared in print, several poems known to be by other poets, and eleven poems of unknown authorship. A reprint of 1612 added nine poems by Thomas Heywood, who promptly protested against the ‘manifest injury’ done to him by printing his poems ‘in a less volume, under the name of another, which may put the world in opinion I might steal them from him . . . But as I must acknowledge my lines not worthy his patronage under whom he hath published them, so the author I know much offended with Master Jaggard that, altogether unknown to him, presumed to make so bold with his name.’ Probably as a result, the original title-page of the 1612 edition was replaced with one that did not mention Shakespeare’s name. We print below the poems of unknown authorship since the attribution to Shakespeare has not been disproved.

The finest poem in this section, ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’, was ascribed to Shakespeare in 1601 when it appeared, without title, as one of the ‘Poetical Essays’ appended to Robert Chester’s Love’s Martyr: or Rosalind’s Complaint, which is described as ‘allegorically shadowing the truth of love in the constant fate of the phoenix and turtle’. Chester’s poem appears to have been composed as a compliment to Sir John and Lady Salusbury, his patron. We know of no link between Shakespeare and the Salusbury family; possibly his poem was not written specifically for the volume in which it appeared. Since the early nineteenth century it has been known as ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ or (following the title-page) ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’. An incantatory elegy, it may well have irrecoverable allegorical significance.

It is not clear whether the two stanzas engraved at opposite ends of the Stanley tomb in the parish church of Tong, in Shropshire, constitute one epitaph or two, or which member (or members) of the family they commemorate. They are ascribed to Shakespeare in two manuscript miscellanies of the 1630s and by the antiquary Sir William Dugdale in a manuscript appended to his Visitation of Shropshire in 1664. Shakespeare had professional connections with the Stanleys early in his career: Titus Andronicus and 1 Henry VI were performed by a theatrical company patronized by the family.

The satirical completion of an epitaph on Ben Jonson (written during his lifetime) is ascribed to Shakespeare in two different seventeenth-century manuscripts.

Shakespeare probably knew Elias James (c.1578-1610), who managed a brewery in the Blackfriars district of London. His epitaph is ascribed to Shakespeare in the same Oxford manuscript as ‘Shall I die?’

The Combe family of Stratford-upon-Avon were friends of Shakespeare. He bequeathed his sword to one of them, and John Combe, who died in 1614, left Shakespeare £5. Several mock epitaphs similar to the first epitaph on John Combe have survived, one (on an unnamed usurer) printed as early as 1608; later versions mention three other men as the usurer. Shakespeare may have adapted some existing lines; or some existing lines may have been adapted anonymously in Stratford, and later attributed to Stratford’s most famous poet. The ascription to him dates from 1634, and is supported by four other seventeenth-century manuscripts. The second Combe epitaph is found in only one manuscript; it seems entirely original, and alludes to a bequest to the poor made in Combe’s will.

The lines on King James first appear, unattributed, beneath an engraving of the King printed as the frontispiece to the 1616 edition of his works. They are attributed to Shakespeare—the leading writer of the theatre company of which King James was patron—in at least two seventeenth-century manuscripts; the same attribution was recorded in a printed broadside now apparently lost.

Shakespeare’s own epitaph is written in the first person; the tradition that he composed it himself is recorded in several manuscripts from the middle to the late seventeenth century.

A Song
1 Shall I die? Shall I fly
2 Lovers’ baits and deceits,
3 sorrow breeding?
4 Shall I tend? Shall I send?
5 Shall I sue, and not rue
6 my proceeding?
7 In all duty her beauty
8 Binds me her servant for ever.
9 If she scorn, I mourn,
10 I retire to despair, joining never.

11 Yet I must vent my lust
12 And explain inward pain
13 by my love conceiving.
14 If she smiles, she exiles
15 All my moan; if she frown,
16 all my hopes deceiving
17 Suspicious doubt, O keep out,
18 For thou art my tormentor.
19 Fie away, pack away;
20 I will love, for hope bids me venture.

21 ’Twere abuse to accuse
22 My fair love, ere I prove
23 her affection.
24 Therefore try! Her reply
25 Gives thee joy or annoy,
26 or affliction.
27 Yet howe’er, I will bear
28 Her pleasure with patience, for beauty
29 Sure will not seem to blot
30 Her deserts, wronging him doth her duty.

31 In a dream it did seem
32 But alas, dreams do pass
33 as do shadows
34 I did walk, I did talk
35 With my love, with my dove,
36 through fair meadows.
37 Still we passed till at last
38 We sat to repose us for pleasure.
39 Being set, lips met,
40 Arms twined, and did bind my heart’s treasure.

41 Gentle wind sport did find
42 Wantonly to make fly
43 her gold tresses.
44 As they shook I did look,
45 But her fair did impair
46 all my senses.
47 As amazed, I gazed
48 On more than a mortal complexion.
49 You that love can prove
50 Such force in beauty’s inflection.

51 Next her hair, forehead fair,
52 Smooth and high; neat doth lie,
53 without wrinkle,
54 Her fair brows; under those,
55 Star-like eyes win love’s prize
56 when they twinkle.
57 In her cheeks who seeks
58 Shall find there displayed beauty’s banner;
59 O admiring desiring
60 Breeds, as I look still upon her.

61 Thin lips red, fancy’s fed
62 With all sweets when he meets,
63 and is granted
64 There to trade, and is made
65 Happy, sure, to endure
66 still undaunted.
67 Pretty chin doth win
68 Of all their culled commendations;
69 Fairest neck, no speck;
70 All her parts merit high admirations.

71 Pretty bare, past compare,
72 Parts those plots which besots
73 still asunder.
74 It is meet naught but sweet
75 Should come near that so rare
76 ’tis a wonder.
77 No mis-shape, no scape
78 Inferior to nature’s perfection;
79 No blot, no spot:
80 She’s beauty’s queen in election.

81 Whilst I dreamt, I, exempt
82 From all care, seemed to share
83 pleasure’s plenty;
84 But awake, care take
85 For I find to my mind
86 pleasures scanty.
87 Therefore I will try
88 To compass my heart’s chief contenting.
89 To delay, some say,
90 In such a case causeth repenting.

Upon a pair of gloves that master sent to his mistress
1 The gift is small,
2 The will is all:
3 Alexander Aspinall

Poems from The Passionate Pilgrim
1 Sweet Cytherea, sitting by a brook
2 With young Adonis, lovely, fresh, and green,
3 Did court the lad with many a lovely look,
4 Such looks as none could look but beauty’s queen.
5 She told him stories to delight his ear,
6 She showed him favours to allure his eye;
7 To win his heart she touched him here and there
8 Touches so soft still conquer chastity.
9 But whether unripe years did want conceit,
10 Or he refused to take her figured proffer,
11 The tender nibbler would not touch the bait,
12 But smile and jest at every gentle offer.
13 Then fell she on her back, fair queen and toward:
14 He rose and ran away ah, fool too froward!

1 Scarce had the sun dried up the dewy morn,
2 And scarce the herd gone to the hedge for shade,
3 When Cytherea, all in love forlorn,
4 A longing tarriance for Adonis made
5 Under an osier growing by a brook,
6 A brook where Adon used to cool his spleen.
7 Hot was the day, she hotter, that did look
8 For his approach that often there had been.
9 Anon he comes and throws his mantle by,
10 And stood stark naked on the brook’s green brim.
11 The sun looked on the world with glorious eye,
12 Yet not so wistly as this queen on him.
13 He, spying her, bounced in whereas he stood.
14 “O Jove,” quoth she, “why was not I a flood?”

1 Fair is my love, but not so fair as fickle,
2 Mild as a dove, but neither true nor trusty,
3 Brighter than glass, and yet, as glass is, brittle;
4 Softer than wax, and yet as iron rusty;
5 A lily pale, with damask dye to grace her,
6 None fairer, nor none falser to deface her.

7 Her lips to mine how often hath she joined,
8 Between each kiss her oaths of true love swearing.
9 How many tales to please me hath she coined,
10 Dreading my love, the loss whereof still fearing.
11 Yet in the midst of all her pure protestings
12 Her faith, her oaths, her tears, and all were jestings.

13 She burnt with love as straw with fire flameth,
14 She burnt out love as soon as straw out burneth.
15 She framed the love, and yet she foiled the framing,
16 She bade love last, and yet she fell a-turning.
17 Was this a lover or a lecher whether,
18 Bad in the best, though excellent in neither?

1 Fair was the morn when the fair queen of love,
2 [ ]
3 Paler for sorrow than her milk-white dove,
4 For Adon’s sake, a youngster proud and wild,
5 Her stand she takes upon a steep-up hill.
6 Anon Adonis comes with horn and hounds.
7 She, seely queen, with more than love’s good will
8 Forbade the boy he should not pass those grounds.
9 “Once,” quoth she, “did I see a fair sweet youth
10 Here in these brakes deep-wounded with a boar,
11 Deep in the thigh, a spectacle of ruth.
12 See in my thigh,” quoth she, “here was the sore.”
13 She showèd hers; he saw more wounds than one,
14 And blushing fled, and left her all alone.

1 Sweet rose, fair flower, untimely plucked, soon faded
2 Plucked in the bud and faded in the spring;
3 Bright orient pearl, alack, too timely shaded;
4 Fair creature, killed too soon by death’s sharp sting,
5 Like a green plum that hangs upon a tree
6 And falls through wind before the fall should be.

7 I weep for thee, and yet no cause I have,
8 For why: thou left’st me nothing in thy will,
9 And yet thou left’st me more than I did crave,
10 For why: I cravèd nothing of thee still.
11 O yes, dear friend, I pardon crave of thee:
12 Thy discontent thou didst bequeath to me.

1 Crabbèd age and youth cannot live together:
2 Youth is full of pleasance, age is full of care;
3 Youth like summer morn, age like winter weather;
4 Youth like summer brave, age like winter bare.
5 Youth is full of sport, age’s breath is short.
6 Youth is nimble, age is lame,
7 Youth is hot and bold, age is weak and cold.
8 Youth is wild and age is tame.
9 Age, I do abhor thee; youth, I do adore thee.
10 O my love, my love is young.
11 Age, I do defy thee. O sweet shepherd, hie thee,
12 For methinks thou stay’st too long.

1 Beauty is but a vain and doubtful good,
2 A shining gloss that fadeth suddenly,
3 A flower that dies when first it ’gins to bud,
4 A brittle glass that’s broken presently.
5 A doubtful good, a gloss, a glass, a flower,
6 Lost, faded, broken, dead within an hour.

7 And as goods lost are seld or never found,
8 As faded gloss no rubbing will refresh,
9 As flowers dead lie withered on the ground,
10 As broken glass no cement can redress,
11 So beauty blemished once, for ever lost,
12 In spite of physic, painting, pain, and cost.

1 Good night, good rest ah, neither be my share.
2 She bade good night that kept my rest away,
3 And daffed me to a cabin hanged with care
4 To descant on the doubts of my decay.
5 “Farewell,” quoth she, “and come again tomorrow.”
6 Fare well I could not, for I supped with sorrow.

7 Yet at my parting sweetly did she smile,
8 In scorn or friendship nill I conster whether.
9 ’T may be she joyed to jest at my exile,
10 ’T may be, again to make me wander thither.
11 “Wander” a word for shadows like myself,
12 As take the pain but cannot pluck the pelf.

13 Lord, how mine eyes throw gazes to the east!
14 My heart doth charge the watch, the morning rise
15 Doth cite each moving sense from idle rest,
16 Not daring trust the office of mine eyes.
17 While Philomela sings I sit and mark,
18 And wish her lays were tunèd like the lark.

19 For she doth welcome daylight with her dite,
20 And daylight drives away dark dreaming night.
21 The night so packed, I post unto my pretty;
22 Heart hath his hope, and eyes their wishèd sight,
23 Sorrow changed to solace, and solace mixed with sorrow,
24 Forwhy she sighed and bade me come tomorrow.

25 Were I with her, the night would post too soon,
26 But now are minutes added to the hours.
27 To spite me now each minute seems a moon,
28 Yet not for me, shine sun to succour flowers!
29 Pack night, peep day; good day, of night now borrow;
30 Short night tonight, and length thyself tomorrow.

to Sundry Notes of Music
1 It was a lording’s daughter, the fairest one of three,
2 That likèd of her master as well as well might be,
3 Till looking on an Englishman, the fairest that eye could see,
4 Her fancy fell a-turning.

5 Long was the combat doubtful that love with love did fight:
6 To leave the master loveless, or kill the gallant knight.
7 To put in practice either, alas, it was a spite
8 Unto the seely damsel.

9 But one must be refusèd, more mickle was the pain
10 That nothing could be usèd to turn them both to gain.
11 For of the two the trusty knight was wounded with disdain
12 Alas, she could not help it.

13 Thus art with arms contending was victor of the day,
14 Which by a gift of learning did bear the maid away.
15 Then lullaby, the learned man hath got the lady gay;
16 For now my song is ended.

1 My flocks feed not, my ewes breed not,
2 My rams speed not, all is amiss.
3 Love is dying, faith’s defying,
4 Heart’s denying causer of this.
5 All my merry jigs are quite forgot,
6 All my lady’s love is lost, God wot.
7 Where her faith was firmly fixed in love,
8 There a nay is placed without remove.
9 One seely cross wrought all my loss
10 O frowning fortune, cursèd fickle dame!
11 For now I see inconstancy
12 More in women than in men remain.

13 In black mourn I, all fears scorn I,
14 Love hath forlorn me, living in thrall.
15 Heart is bleeding, all help needing
16 O cruel speeding, freighted with gall.
17 My shepherd’s pipe can sound no deal,
18 My wether’s bell rings doleful knell,
19 My curtal dog that wont to have played
20 Plays not at all, but seems afraid,
21 With sighs so deep procures to weep
22 In howling wise to see my doleful plight.
23 How sighs resound through heartless ground,
24 Like a thousand vanquished men in bloody

25 Clear wells spring not, sweet birds sing not,
26 Green plants bring not forth their dye.
27 Herd stands weeping, flocks all sleeping,
28 Nymphs back peeping fearfully.
29 All our pleasure known to us poor swains,
30 All our merry meetings on the plains,
31 All our evening sport from us is fled,
32 All our love is lost, for love is dead.
33 Farewell, sweet lass, thy like ne’er was
34 For a sweet content, the cause of all my moan.
35 Poor Corydon must live alone,
36 Other help for him I see that there is none.

1 Whenas thine eye hath chose the dame
2 And stalled the deer that thou shouldst strike,
3 Let reason rule things worthy blame
4 As well as fancy, partial might.
5 Take counsel of some wiser head,
6 Neither too young nor yet unwed,

7 And when thou com’st thy tale to tell,
8 Smooth not thy tongue with filèd talk
9 Lest she some subtle practice smell:
10 A cripple soon can find a halt.
11 But plainly say thou lov’st her well,
12 And set her person forth to sale,

13 And to her will frame all thy ways.
14 Spare not to spend, and chiefly there
15 Where thy desert may merit praise
16 By ringing in thy lady’s ear.
17 The strongest castle, tower, and town,
18 The golden bullet beats it down.

19 Serve always with assurèd trust,
20 And in thy suit be humble-true;
21 Unless thy lady prove unjust,
22 Press never thou to choose anew.
23 When time shall serve, be thou not slack
24 To proffer, though she put thee back.

25 What though her frowning brows be bent,
26 Her cloudy looks will calm ere night,
27 And then too late she will repent
28 That thus dissembled her delight,
29 And twice desire, ere it be day,
30 That which with scorn she put away.

31 What though she strive to try her strength,
32 And ban, and brawl, and say thee nay,
33 Her feeble force will yield at length
34 When craft hath taught her thus to say:
35 “Had women been so strong as men,
36 In faith you had not had it then.”

37 The wiles and guiles that women work,
38 Dissembled with an outward show,
39 The tricks and toys that in them lurk
40 The cock that treads them shall not know.
41 Have you not heard it said full oft
42 A woman’s nay doth stand for nought?

43 Think women still to strive with men,
44 To sin and never for to saint.
45 There is no heaven; be holy then
46 When time with age shall them attaint.
47 Were kisses all the joys in bed,
48 One woman would another wed.

49 But soft, enough too much, I fear,
50 Lest that my mistress hear my song
51 She will not stick to round me on th’ ear
52 To teach my tongue to be so long.
53 Yet will she blush (here be it said)
54 To hear her secrets so bewrayed.

Alternative manuscript version of Poem 18
1 When that thine eye hath chose the dame
2 And stalled the deer that thou wouldst strike,
3 Let reason rule things worthy blame
4 As well as partial fancy like.
5 Ask counsel of some other head,
6 Neither unwise nor yet unwed,
7 And when thou com’st thy tale to tell,
8 Whet not thy tongue with filèd talk
9 Lest she some subtle practice smell:
10 A cripple soon can spy a halt.
11 But plainly say thou lov’st her well,
12 And set thy body forth to sell.
13 Unto her will frame all thy ways.
14 Spare not to spend, and chiefly there
15 Where thy expense may sound thy praise
16 And still be ringing in her ear.
17 The strongest towers, fort, or town
18 The golden bullet beateth down.
19 Serve always with assurèd trust,
20 And in thy suit be ever true;
21 Until thy lady prove unjust,
22 Press never thou to change for new.
23 When time doth serve thee, be not slack
24 To proffer, though she put it back.
25 What if she frown, with sorrows be bent?
26 Her cloudy looks will calm at night,
27 When that perhaps she will repent,
28 That so dissembled her delight,
29 And thrice desire it ere be day,
30 That with such scorn she put away.
31 What if she strive to try thy strength,
32 And ban, and brawl, and swear thee nay?
33 Her feeble force will yield at length
34 And craft will cause her thus to say,
35 “Had women been as strong as men,
36 By cock you had not had it then.”
37 Think women seek to match with men,
38 To live in sin and not to saint.
39 Here is no heaven; be holy then
40 Till time shall thee with age attaint.
41 Were kissing all the joys in bed,
42 One woman would another wed.
43 A thousand wiles in wantons lurks,
44 Dissembled with an outward show,
45 The tricks and toys the mean to work
46 The cock that treads them doth not know.
47 Hast thou not heard it said full oft,
48 A woman’s nay doth stand for nought?
49 Ho now, enough and more, I fear,
50 For if my mistress heard this song
51 She would not stick to warm my ear
52 To teach my tongue to be so long.
53 Yet would she smile here, be it said,
54 To hear her secrets thus bewrayed.

"The Phoenix and Turtle"
1 Let the bird of loudest lay
2 On the sole Arabian tree
3 Herald sad and trumpet be,
4 To whose sound chaste wings obey.

5 But thou shrieking harbinger,
6 Foul precurrer of the fiend,
7 Augur of the fever’s end
8 To this troupe come thou not near.

9 From this session interdict
10 Every fowl of tyrant wing
11 Save the eagle, feathered king.
12 Keep the obsequy so strict.

13 Let the priest in surplice white
14 That defunctive music can,
15 Be the death-divining swan,
16 Lest the requiem lack his right.

17 And thou treble-dated crow,
18 That thy sable gender mak’st
19 With the breath thou giv’st and tak’st,
20 ’Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.

21 Here the anthem doth commence:
22 Love and constancy is dead,
23 Phoenix and the turtle fled
24 In a mutual flame from hence.

25 So they loved as love in twain
26 Had the essence but in one,
27 Two distincts, division none.
28 Number there in love was slain.

29 Hearts remote yet not asunder,
30 Distance and no space was seen
31 ’Twixt this turtle and his queen.
32 But in them it were a wonder.

33 So between them love did shine
34 That the turtle saw his right
35 Flaming in the Phoenix’ sight.
36 Either was the other’s mine.

37 Property was thus appalled
38 That the self was not the same.
39 Single nature’s double name
40 Neither two nor one was called.

41 Reason, in itself confounded,
42 Saw division grow together
43 To themselves, yet either neither,
44 Simple were so well compounded

45 That it cried “How true a twain
46 Seemeth this concordant one!
47 Love hath reason, reason none,
48 If what parts can so remain.”

49 Whereupon it made this threne
50 To the phoenix and the dove,
51 Co-supremes and stars of love,
52 As chorus to their tragic scene.

53 Beauty, truth, and rarity,
54 Grace in all simplicity,
55 Here enclosed in cinders lie.

56 Death is now the phoenix’ nest,
57 And the turtle’s loyal breast
58 To eternity doth rest.

59 Leaving no posterity
60 ’Twas not their infirmity,
61 It was married chastity.

62 Truth may seem but cannot be,
63 Beauty brag, but ’tis not she.
64 Truth and beauty buried be.

65 To this urn let those repair
66 That are either true or fair.
67 For these dead birds sigh a prayer.

Verses upon the Stanley Tomb at Tong

Written upon the east end of the tomb
1 Ask who lies here, but do not weep.
2 He is not dead; he doth but sleep.
3 This stony register is for his bones;
4 His fame is more perpetual than these stones,
5 And his own goodness, with himself being gone,
6 Shall live when earthly monument is none.

Written upon the west end thereof
1 Not monumental stone preserves our fame,
2 Nor sky-aspiring pyramids our name.
3 The memory of him for whom this stands
4 Shall outlive marble and defacers’ hands.
5 When all to time’s consumption shall be given,
6 Stanley for whom this stands shall stand in heaven.

On Ben Jonson
Master Ben Jonson and Master William Shakespeare being merry at a tavern,
Master Jonson having begun this for his epitaph:
1 Here lies Ben Jonson
2 That was once one,

he gives it to Master Shakespeare to make up who presently writes:
3 Who while he lived was a slow thing,
4 And now, being dead, is nothing.

An Epitaph on Elias James
1 When God was pleased, the world unwilling yet,
2 Elias James to nature paid his debt,
3 And here reposeth. As he lived, he died,
4 The saying strongly in him verified:
5 “Such life, such death”. Then, a known truth to tell,
6 He lived a godly life, and died as well.

An extemporary epitaph on John Combe, a noted usurer
1 Ten in the hundred here lies engraved;
2 A hundred to ten his soul is not saved.
3 If anyone ask who lies in this tomb,
4 “O ho!” quoth the devil, “’tis my John-a-Combe.”

Another Epitaph on John Comb
He being dead, and making the poor his heirs, William Shakespeare after writes
this for his epitaph:
1 Howe’er he livèd judge not,
2 John Combe shall never be forgot
3 While poor hath memory, for he did gather
4 To make the poor his issue; he, their father,
5 As record of his tilth and seed
6 Did crown him in his latter deed.

Upon the King
At the foot of the effigy of King James I, before his Works (1616)
1 Crowns have their compass; length of days, their date;
3 Triumphs, their tombs; felicity, her fate.
4 Of more than earth can earth make none partaker,
5 But knowledge makes the king most like his maker.

Epitaph on Himself
1 Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear
2 To dig the dust enclosèd here.
3 Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
4 And cursed be he that moves my bones.
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