Modern Version stanzas 15-20; Anglo-Saxon lines 53-71

The lines divide as follows: stanza 1 MV = lines 1-6a AS; 2 = 6b-8a; 3 = 8b-12a; 4 = 12b-16; 5 = 17; 6 = 18-25a; 7 = 25b-26; 8 = 27-30; 9 = 31-33a; 10/11 = 33b-38; 12 = 39-43; 13 = 44-47; 14 = 48-52; 15 = 53-55a; 16 = 55b-57; 17 = 58-62a; [centre] 18 = 62b-64a; 19 = 64b-67; 20 = 68-71; 21 = 72-80a; 22 = 80b-85; 23 = 86-93; 24 = 94-99; 25 = 100-105; 26 = 106-107; 27 = 108; 28 = 109-116; 29 = 117-122a; 30 = 122b-124/5. Click on numbers for transportation.

(g): General overview of stanza. (e): Excerpts and echoes from many sources. (s): Specific points that attracted attention during interpretation. (a): Ambiguities, puns, homonyms, multiple meanings, reinforcements, sliding syntax, mainly in the MV.


swylce geac monað | geomran reorde
singeð sumeres weard | sorge beodeð
bitter in breosthord |


And heralding his summer hoard of pain
the gowk repeats his plaintive geck
foreboding bitterness of breast


This gowk is odd. It is both the mocker and the mocked: both the subject and the "other" of the poem. Points developed further; see 15a, 15s and 16g below. Several thought-provoking comments on the cuckoo occur in All the Birds of the Air, an admirable compendium of bird-lore by Francesca Greenoak, 1979. Does the cuckoo forebode sorge because, especially in the north of England, it was believed to change into a hawk from August until the following April?


Vstergk r bstergk/i Norge fjll r en trkig gk/men sdergken r ddergk/och stergken han r trstergk. "The cuckoo's call: from west is best, north is dull, south is death, east is consolation." See Bird, Ship, Sun, Sea. Evert Taube, Vals i gkottan, 1935.

Send the gowk another mile.


geac: gowk; geck. "Gowk" is preferred to "cuckoo" here for its apter connotations, as well as for offering greater euphony. The entries under "gowk" in Scottish dictionaries are massive. English "cuckoo" today tends strongly to connote "bonkers". "Gowk" has been queried, occasionally, but a word in frequent use by 5 million English speakers is, to my mind, acceptable.

geomran reorde: cf Sw jämrande rör, "yammering pipe".

sumeres weard:

sorge beodeð:

bitter in breosthord:


the gowk repeats his plaintive geck. "His" is ambiguous; so is "gowk" and so is "geck"; the statement can therefore be interpreted in several ways. 1) The cuckoo repeats his "geck"; ie "geck-geck", cf Ger kuckuck, ie "cuckoo"; 2) the cuckoo repeats the poet's geck; 3) the poet, as gowk, repeats his complaint (as geck). "Geck" is primarily defined as a verb, "to mock (at)", but its conversion to noun seems acceptable to me, though influenced by Sw gäcka and gök.


                            þæt se beorn ne wat     (55)
sefteadig secg | hwaet þa sume dreogað
þe þa wræclastas | widost lecgað


Soft-bedded bloods cannot conceive
what some men suffer as abroad
they travel tracks of exile


The sefteadig secg seems to me to have some affinity with the cuckoo. I see the poet as a man of aristocratic line, who has failed to win his birthright, is ousted by the secg and thence constrained to the consolations of religion and intellectual melancholy, perhaps as a monk. The secg appears as a cuckoo in the nest. Then the bird changes its nature, and converts into the gowk, a fool and a loser driven to wander miles before he sleeps.


Alone, alone, all, all alone,/Alone on a wide wide sea. S.T.Coleridge, The Ancient Mariner, 1798.


beorn: beorn + secg = bloods. beo(a)rn suggests "bairn/child" as much as "bear", and secg (to me) suggests "blade", of the dashing sort. "Björn" or "Bjarni" (bear) is a favoured name for Scandinavian (Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic more than Danish?) barn (children); bears resemble humans (eg Beowulf), including the fubsy bearcub (hence the teddy), ie youth. "Bloods" are young, and the word may couple the hint of privilege with contempt for those with less breeding and cash. The cuckoo is soft-bedded in a nest from which others have been ousted. A poem contains whatever may be found in it.

sefteadig secg: sefteadig, "soft-blessed". Feather-bedded. Possibly efteadig: much-blessed? The s to alliterate. An emendation exigency perhaps allows.

sume dreogað:

þe þa wræclastas: wrclastas, ejected treks.

widost lecgað: widost abroad. "most widely". As wide as it's broad. lecga, "lays"?


In "travel" there is a muted pun on "travail", picked up again in stanza 29.

back                see also here for more on lines 58-62.

forþon nu min hyge hweorfeð | ofer hreþerlocan
min modsefa | mid mereflode
ofer hwæles eþel | hweorfeð wide       (60)
eorþan sceatas | cymeð eft to me
gifre and grædig |


Reckless of that, my thought is thrown
beyond my heart's cage now. Hot hunger
keenly comes again. My mind is cast
upon the sea swell, over the whale's world
widely to course creation's coast

17: amended Aug 2005, Dec 2006, Dec 2009, Aug 2016

forþon nu min hyge hweorfeð | ofer hreþerlocan
min modsefa | mid mereflode
ofer hwæles eþel | hweorfeð wide       (60)
eorþan sceatas | cymeð eft to me
gifre and grædig |


Reckless of that, my thought is thrown
beyond my heart's cage now. My mind is cast
upon the sea swell, over the whale's world
widely to course creation's coast:
then comes a keening call ---


Gordon's comments on lines 58-68 seem to me uniformly misguided. Nearly all exegetists (eg Kershaw, Magoun below, next stanza) fail to do justice to this demanding passage; these notes, so far, are also quite inadequate.

August 2005. Which is why, returning to this passage after about three years, and following a paper read at the International Medieval Congress, Leeds, it now seems mandatory to revise the MV. Displacing the line cymeð eft to me gifre and grædig is a bad instance of reprehensible cheating, breaking the thought sequence in order to ram home a personal interpretation. The line needs to be re-translated, and returned to its proper place. Much hangs on the translation of eft, which has very frequently been rendered by "again", and is closer to "then" or "in turn"; ie "afterwards" (eftsoons), its natural descendant; cf Sw. efter. December 2009. Another amendment.


Most souls, 'tis true, but peep out once an age,/Dull sullen pris'ners in the body's cage:/Dim lights of life, that burn a length of years. Alexander Pope, Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady, 1717.

...... you hear the grating roar/Of pebbles which the waves suck back, and fling,/At their return up the high strand,/Begin, and cease, and then again begin ...... Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach, 1867.

"...... isn't it a bitter thing to think of him floating that way to the far north, and no one to keen him but the black hags that do be flying on the sea?" J.M.Synge, Riders to the Sea, 1903; set among the fishermen of Aran.

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,/Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell/And the profit and loss. T.S.Eliot, The Waste Land, IV. Death by Water, 1922.

In some parts of Scotland, particularly in Argyllshire, the contiguous islands and Skye, the banshee is known as the cointach, or "keener", from her habit of indulging in outbursts of dismal wailing. Lewis Spence, The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain (1945), Constable 1995, p.81.


forþon nu min hyge: See SSAS for forþon and hyge. "Reckless of that"; ie "for all that/yet/still/nevertheless". The for on conjunction or connective occurs 8 times in The Seafarer, and in the first 6 instances it is quite adequately translated by Sw nd, "yet". Nicolas Jacobs, in Syntactical Connection and Logical Disconnection: the Case of The Seafarer, M 58 (1989) 105-113, makes heavy weather of it. In the last two instances the sense shifts to "when" or "so that", which can still be rendered in Swedish by d (also meaning "then"). D is cognate with on (ME o), "then". In an English dictionary the word "yet" is glossed "still, up to this or that time; by this or that time, so soon or early as the present, so far, in addition, further, besides; eventually, at some future time, before all is over; even (with compar.); nevertheless, in spite of that, notwithstanding, but still, as yet, up to this or that time, so far, just yet, in the immediate future (with neg): not yet, not up to the present time". Ouf! "Yet" is derived from Anglo-Saxon git, get, giet, cf. Fris. jiette, Ger jetzt, now meaning "now".

hweorfeð: cast. The mind is thrown, cast, like bread, upon the waters; also cast like dice, or a die. Set firm. "Cast" has strong nautical connotations: "cast off", "castaway" etc. One of the last and most richly satisfying words found for this translation. "....the pale cast of thought"; Hamlet. The word merehwearf occurs in Exodus, C8th?, and indicates the naked shingles where the sea is thrown, or throws itself, against the shore; ie the beach. John Larsson explains that a sea-bay where soil was deposited, not eroded, would form a "wharf", where ships might better harbour. Hwearfan appears to me cognate with Ger werfen, "throw" or "cast". But the tide also turns; rollers fold in on themselves; waters eddy and swirl. Some translators use "turn", with, in my view, some loss of basic sense in this context. Anglo-Saxon distinctions between active and passive voices, transitive and intransitive verbs, seem to me blurred: hweorfe: throws, "scatters (itself): is scattered". hweorfan: Gordon glosses: "turn, go, journey (huh?)". JBB gives "turn" and a lot else; also hwearfian "revolve". Clay pots are "thrown" on the potter's wheel, when "throw" connotes "turn". Is "throw" some sort of metathetic formation from hweorfan? Why does Ger werfen mean "throw"? Otherwise "throw" comes from AS thrawan "twist, hurl". The word has to be cognate with "wharf", cf Sw (h)varv, which also means "turn" in sense of "lap", eg on a running track; also "curve of coastline", against which ships tie up or turn round within. Vra Ord gives early Sw hvaerva "disappear": formation from a common Germanic word "turn, turn around (whirl/spin?), go round, encircle". Ger werben. Also "to recruit" (!).

ofer: Here, "beyond" or "across".

hreþerlocan: heart's cage. The ribs. Sw brstkorg "breast basket: rib-cage". cf breostcofa "breast-chamber; heart"; The Wanderer l.18. Is there not an association of ideas and meaning between hreer and "wraith, wrath, wreath, wreck, wrack, wrist, writhe"? The last two are cognate with Sw vrida and contain the concept of "turning". Anger, "wrath" is a mental twist or contortion. Are not Anglo-Saxon "h" and "w" rather close in sound and interchangeability? cf hweorfan and wraec, wrecan. These words signify turbulence, violence, animation, ejection. Perhaps hreer would be well translated "wraith": the double or phantom of a living person; an apparition, a ghost appearing after death. (Cassell Concise). Partridge (Origins) says "wraith" is formed by metathesis from Sc warth; but the OED merely notes it "of obscure origin". Sw vlnad undoubtedly means "wraith". cf Vra Ord: vlnad; formerly vrdnad, same word as OSw varnaer; a word which has a particular connotation of "guardian spirit" or "fetch". locan: cage, enclosure. "Lock"; cf Sw lock "lid", or "top".


mereflode: The swelling of the sea. Its course. sea swell: sea's well. The well of the sea; at the bottom of which truth lies. "Our great sweet mother", as plump Buck Mulligan remarks in Ulysses.

hwæles eþel : The whale's domain. Its world, where it holds sway. hwles eel: whale's world. Over the "whales whirled/whale swirled". eel: J.R.Clark Hall, Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: "country, native land, ancestral home."

hweorfeð wide: Cast widely. "Cast" could have figured among Empson's Complex words.

eorþan sceatas: "Creation". See SSAS . eoran sceatas: "the bosom/treasures/cornucopia of the earth"; creation's coast. The border between life and death. Sceatas: surely cognate with Sw. skte; as well as Sw. skatt; "treasure" (often used as a term of endearment in Swedish: also in English). "Skatt" also means "tax" ("scot-free" = "tax-free"). Sw. skaffa "get/beget", skapa "shape/create", skaft "shaft"; Ger. schaffen with closely similar meanings. The significance of Skötkonung, epithet attached to C11th Swedish King Olof, is continually and inconclusively debated.

cymeð eft to me gifre and grædig : "Comes [again] to me eager and greedy." cf Sw ivrig och girig, Ger eifrig. Ger Eifer connotes pride and ambition; "avid", as in Bradley's version, is good here. The phrase seems unattached; it may modify the anfloga, the hyge, the modsefa , the erne, or all or none of these. It is here wilfully detached, to recall the hungor in l.11, on the basis of eft, and the adjectives converted to adverb and substantive. "Keen(ly)" suggests itself, naturally, for gifre, which also connotes "heat"; and "hunger" substitutes for grædig. It is interesting that Pound (instinctively?) rendered grædig as "ready" here. Note: 2016. Eft now seems to me perfectly translated by "anon". It does not mean "again" --- it's taken me a long time to realise that.


cast: 1. throw, 2. set firm; faint homonym with "coast". "The die is cast" is itself a double pun: "the dice are thrown"; "the die is set firm". The mind is "cast", like the die, moulded, both set firm and thrown upon the waters: the word prepares the reader for "steel" in the next stanza. "Rose of Castille/rows of cast steel"; the (railway) tracks of travel; the multi-pun in Ulysses, Joyce.

sea swell: sea's well.

over the whale's world: over the whale swirled.

keenly: 1. sharply, hotly, eagerly; 2. with a keening sound.

centre of poem: back

                                gielleð anfloga
hweteð onwæl weg | hreþer unwearnum
ofer holma gelagu |


Anon the raptor wails on wing
that steels the naked soul to start
upon the death-way where the whale sways


These lines are examined in The Central Crux of The Seafarer. Almost every conclusion reached about this poem arises from the initial problem of distilling the significance of these ten or eleven words. Every dictionary I consulted instructed me that unwearnum meant "irresistibly", yet the irrationality of this interpretation was blatant. The burden of centennial authority, an edifice constructed on the labours of tenured scholars, weighed heavily. Yet ...... e pur si muove. The schoolmen were simply wrong. The word means "vulnerable", the fog dispersed, and the meaning, structure and coherence of the work slowly solidified. The next key word is anfloga. Relevant comments in An Old English Grammar; R.Quirk & C.L.Wrenn, Methuen 1955; p.112: "In nouns, where on- or an- is an unstressed form of and-, the prefix often clearly indicates 'against, in reply to': (selected examples) onrs 'attack', ongean 'against, opposite', onsge 'impending, attacking', ondslyht 'onslaught', andsaca 'adversary'." I don't fully accept "in reply to", suggesting response to a provocation: an- in most German and Swedish words, and indeed English ("on-") seldom implies anything other than an unprovoked advance. The major exception seems to me to be "answer", inviting suspicion that the Anglo-Saxon word oncw was originally purely aggressive: hence use of "taunt" in stanza 6.

2016. After some years translating gielleð anfloga as "lone call wails" I've finally decided to replace "lone call" with "summons" [now "death-knell", now "raptor"], in order to excise the suggestion that an- means "one".


For fear the cruell Feends should thee vnwares deuowre. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, 1590, 3.3.8.

But at my Back I alwaies hear/Times winged Charriot hurrying near. Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress, Miscellaneous Poems, 1681.

A motion and a spirit, that impels/All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/And rolls through all things. W.Wordsworth; Tintern Abbey, 1798, ll. 95-102

The Bird of Time has but a little way/To fly --- and Lo! The Bird is on the Wing. Edward FitzGerald, Rubiyt of Omar Khayym, first edition, 1859, 7th quatrain.

At all these death-beds women heard/A visionary white sea-bird/Lamenting that a man should die;/And with that cry I have raised my cry. W.B.Yeats; In Memory of Alfred Pollexfen; 1919

Surely it merely carries on the metaphor which describes the speaker's imagination as a (solitary) seabird? cf Psalm 9. 1; (how say ye to my soul, flee as a bird to your mountain); 124. 7 (Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken and we are escaped.) Nora Kershaw, Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse Poems, 1922, note p.170. See also Re unwearnum. Does "surely" imply doubt, Nora? I don't believe the poet describes his imagination as a seabird.

In Brittany (see Anatole le Braz, La Lgende de la Mort, 1893), the last buried in a parish in each year is called the Ankou, who is, in fact, death itself. He is a skeleton and rides about the village in a chariot, warning those who are about to die. He is not a demon but the friend of the living and the messenger of God. E.Hull, Folklore of the British Isles, 1928. p.209. See The Aviary of Death, here. [Whence an- in Ankou, the word for Death in both Breton and Cornish?]

To feel the always coming on/The always rising of the night ..... Archibald MacLeish; You, Andrew Marvell, 1930.

Supernatural choosers of the slain were also known to the Anglo-Saxons. By the tenth century they have taken their place among the adversaries of the Christian God, and are placed contemptuously by Wulfstan beside witches and criminals. In one word list which may be dated as early as the eighth century wlcyrge (walcyrge, walcrigge) is given as the Anglo-Saxon equivalent for ... the Greek Furies. H.R.Ellis (Davidson), The Road to Hel, CUP 1943, p.71.

The problem of the nature of man's inner self is one that seems to have had great interest for the Norse writers. ibid, p.121. [And the Anglo-Saxons, I submit. Introspection is one of the major defining traits of Germanic thought and language. Greek and Latin literature does not seem to me intrinsically introspective; the unfolding of plot in Greek drama, for instance, seems to me primarily attributed to the inscrutable impact of external forces: Fate, Gods, Furies. Hamlet, however, the matchless delineation of the northern conscience, is focussed on the workings of the inner mind.]

Hwl-weg, in meaning identical with hran-rd of Beowulf 10a and occurring in hwete on hwl-weg (Seafarer 63a) 'impels on (to) the whale's route.' Francis P.Magoun, The Oral-Formulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry, Speculum 28, 1953, p.446-467. [I disagree, of course.]

Vala is a veil between man and reality. H.M.Margoliouth, ed, William Blake's Vala, OUP 1956: p.xix.

Wlweg --- often emended to hwlweg, an improvement in alliteration probably vitiated by the feeble echo it gives of hwles eel, line 60. W.F.Bolton, An Old English Anthology, Edwin Arnold, London 1963, p.84. [The echo is, surely, deliberate; it is, however, vitiated by the unnecessary emendation and alliteration, which is no improvement.]

Hre was a wlcyrie. The goddess Rheda (a dea illorum Rheda, cui in illo sacrificabant, nominatur: Bede?) of Hremona, March, the last month of winter, signifying "stormy, windy" month. Kathleen Herbert, Looking for the Lost Gods of England, Anglo-Saxon Books 1994, p.21.

One tantalizing account says that (the Celtiberians) believed that the souls of those who died in battle and were eaten by vultures went straight to heaven. Here, just possibly, is a reference to the rite of excarnation. Barry Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts, OUP 1997.


gielleð: "yelleth"; "waileth". AS gellan, giellan. cf Sw gala "crow" (of a cock, or indeed a cuckoo --- though not a crow). Vra Ord, 1993, introduces idea of "chant spells"; cf galen "mad, insane". Sw vala "seeress, wailing woman". "Nightingale": ME nihtgale, galan "sing", related to "yell" and "gale". "Wail": ME weilen, ON vala "to cry woe". Is "wail" not cognate with "yell"? Are not all these words related in sound and meaning? Call, yell, gale, wail? Vala, veil, vale, valley? They are; and no etymologistical denial will be entertained.

anfloga: For some time (about 12 years) I translated this phrase as the "lone call [wails] above on wing". That rendering retained the implied singularity of the flier, and anyway also echoed Tennyson's and Masefield's precedents. The approach was meant to be conveyed by "call": definitely a beckoning approach. However, I now prefer "summons", as noted above. The anfloga, I suggest, is whatever a man may conceive of as malevolently advancing towards him, as discussed on another page [here]. If forced to pick a single concept, I might choose "time", frequently referred to by my father as "the enemy". Change and Decay. A recent article by Stephen Glosecki, Mythic Magic in The Nine Herbs Charm, Essays in Honor of Raymond P.Tripp, Mellen 2000, draws apt attention to the presence of onflygnum, "disease-shots", "flying venom", in the charm; and in his Medium Ævum article, 1957-59, [see Bird, Ship, Sun, Sea] G.V.Smithers was thinking along the same lines.

hweteð: See The Central Crux of The Seafarer.

onwæl weg: See ibid. To the Anglo-Saxon wæl meant "death", especially in a poetic context. Any prose translation should indubitably read "death"; but since the idea is already compellingly latent, it seemed more fruitful to seize the playful opportunities offered by "wails", "whales", and "sways", and echo the earlier "whale's world".

hreþer: See ibid.

unwearnum: See ibid.

ofer: "beyond", says Authority; "across" is preferred here, since besides alliterating sensibly with "above", it alludes (as in Alfred's Crossing the Bar --- or wearn) to "a cross", "crux", "crucifixion", "Christ", and "crisis". "My bonnie lies over the ocean" and "over the sea to Skye" retain a folk-archaic flavour.

holma: it seems quite extraordinary that this word, patently "knoll" or "islet", should mean "sea" in Anglo-Saxon. Perhaps "skerry" combines the apparent opposites, cf Wessén skär, holme.




where the whale sways: 1. where the whale wobbles; 2. where [are] the whales' ways; 3. where the whale [holds] sway.


                                  for þon me hatran sind
dryhtnes dreamas | þonne þis deade lif   (65)
læne on londe | ic gelyfe no
þæt him eorðwelan | ece stondað


God's visions are to me more vivid
than this dead life loaned out on land
I know its leasehold will not last



Summer's lease hath all too short a date. W.Shakespeare, Sonnet 18.

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so./After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,/we ourselves flash and yearn ......John Berryman, The Dream Songs, 14, 1964.


for þon: an adequate rendering of this (these) word(s) here might be Sw ty ännu or ty än or ännu or ändå. Any literate Swede could distinguish between them, but their differences are wafer-thin. An English effort might be "because/for still/yet"; but in this passage the next thought follows so easily that the connective is unnecessary. Gunnar Hansson omits it in his Swedish version. See SSAS.

me hatran sind:

dryhtnes dreamas: God's visions. A reading here of "noise, gaiety, merriment" etc, for dreamas, can hardly be right. The word must connote at least something of "dream"; but whose dream is it? Alice's, or the Red King's? I suppose "joys", of a dreamy sort, might be an acceptable alternative.

þonne þis deade lif: the concept of "mortgage" ("dead pledge") seems to lurk embryonic in this passage, linking "property" (eorðwelan?) with "loan".

læne on londe: I'd imagined that my use of the concept of "leasehold" in this context was original, but it was gratifying to discover from the internet Ansax forum that the idea had been anticipated in an article (Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 93, 1992) by Dr. C.A.Conway: "he argues that the poem's (Wanderer's) .... use of "laene" is better translated "lease-hold" than "transitory." Posting from Ron Ganze, 18 Mar 2001.

ic gelyfe no þæt him eorðwelan:

ece stondað :


God's visions: 1) visions of God (by us); 2) what God envisions (for us).


simle þreora sum | þinga gehwylce
ær his tiddæge | to tweon weorþeð
adl oþþe yldo | oþþe ecghete       (70)
fægum fromweardum | feorh oðþringeð


Still three things twist man's mind
until the day his doom is sealed
age, illness or some stroke of hate
will seize sense from him



Cut me to pieces, Volsces, men and lads/Stain all your edges on me. W.Shakespeare, Coriolanus 5.6, 111-16 .

Wanne ich thenche thinges thre/ne mai neure blithe be:/that on is ich sal awe,/that other is ich ne wot wilk day/That thridde is mi meste kare,/i ne woth nevre wuder i sal fare. Three Sorrowful Things: quoted by Anthony Burgess, A Mouthful of Air, Hutchinson, 1992. If I think on matters three/I can never happy be./The first is that I must away,/Then, that I do not know the day./The third, it is my greatest care/I know not whither I shall fare. CHW trans.


simle þreora sum:

þinga gehwylce:

ær his tiddæge:

to tweon weorþeð:

adl oþþe yldo:

oþþe ecghete:

fægum fromweardum:

feorh oðþringeð:


stroke of hate/stroke of fate.



annotation introduction

Modern Version stanzas 1-7; Anglo-Saxon lines 1-26

MV stanzas 8-14; AS lines 27-52:  MV stanzas 15-20; AS lines 53-71

MV stanzas 20-24; AS lines 72-99:  MV stanzas 25-30; AS lines 100-125

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