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Significant Scots
Alexander Geddes


GEDDES, ALEXANDER, celebrated as a poet, a critic, and miscellaneous writer, was born at Arradowl, in the parish of Ruthven, Banffshire, in the year 1737. His father, Alexander Geddes, rented a small farm on the Arradowl estate, and, in common with that class of people in Scotland at that time, was in very poor circumstances. His mother was of the Mitchells of Dellachy, in the neighbouring parish of Bellay, and both were of the Roman catholic persuasion. The parents being anxious to procure for their son the benefits of learning, he was, with a view to the service of the church, at a very tender age, put to learn his letters under a woman who kept a school in the village, of the name of Sellar. Here he learned to read the English Bible, which seems to have been the only book his parents possessed, and which, contrary to the general practice of people of their communion, they encouraged him "to read with reverence and attention." In perusing this book, young Geddes took a singula delight, and, by the time he was eleven years of age, had got the historical parts of it nearly by heart. At this period the laird of Arradowl having engaged a tutor of the name of Shearer, from Aberdeen, for his two sons, was looking about him for three boys of promising parts, whom he might educate gratuitously along with them, and who might afterwards be devoted to the service of the church. Young Geddes, already celebrated for his talents, and for his love of study, immediately attracted his notice, and, along with a cousin of his own, John Geddes, who afterwards became titular bishop of Dunkeld, and another boy, was taken into the house of Arradowl, where he enjoyed all the advantages peculiar to the laird’s superior situation in life, and, we may reasonably suppose, though we have not seen it noticed, that his improvement was correspondent to his privilege. From the hospitable mansion of Arradowl, he was, by the influence of the laird himself, admitted into the Catholic free seminary of Sculan, a seminary intended solely for young men who were to be afterwards sent abroad to receive holy orders in some of the foreign universities. No situation was ever better chosen for the educating of monks than Sculan standing in a dismal glen, overhung with mountains on all sides, so high as to preclude the sun from being seen for many months in the year. "Pray, be so kind," said Geddes, writing from that dreary spot, to one of his fellow students, who had obtained leave to visit his friends, "as to make particular inquiries after the health of the sun. Fail not to present my compliments to him, and tell him I still hope I shall one day be able to renew the honour of personal acquaintance with him." Here, to a knowledge of the vulgar English Bible, he added a knowledge of the vulgar Latin one, which appears to have been all the benefit he received by a seven years’ seclusion from the sun, and from the world which he illuminated. Having attained the age of twenty-one, he was removed to the Scots college at Paris, where he completed his knowledge of the Latin language, to which he added Hebrew, Greek, Italian, French, Spanish, German, and Low Dutch. Theology and biblical criticism were the principal objects of his attention, for he had already formed the design of making a new translation of the Bible for the use of his Catholic countrymen, to the accomplishing of which all his studies seem to have been directed from a very early period of his life. When he had completed his course in the Scots college at Paris, he was solicited to take a share of the public labours of the college, and to fix, of course, his residence in that gay metropolis. This, however, after some hesitation, he declined, and, after an absence of six years, returned to his native country in the year 1764. Having entered into orders, Geddes, on his arrival in Scotland, was, by his ecclesiastic superior, ordered to reside at Dundee, as officiating priest to the Catholics of Angus. This situation he did not long fill, being invited by the earl of Traquair to reside in his family at Traquair house, whither he repaired in the month of May, 1765.

Here Mr Geddes was situated as happily as his heart could have wished, he had plenty of time, with the use of an excellent library, and he seems to have prosecuted his favourite study with great diligence. He had been in this happy situation, however, little more than a year, when the openly displayed affection of a female inmate of the house, a relation of the earl, rendered it necessary for him, having taken the vow of perpetual celibacy, to take an abrupt departure from the Arcadian scenery of the Tweed. Leaving with the innocent author of his misfortune a beautiful little poem, entitled The Confessional, he again bade adieu to his native land, and in the varieties and volatilities of Paris, endeavoured to forget his pain. Even in this condition, however, he did not lose sight of his great object, as, during the time he remained in Paris, he made a number of valuable extracts from books and manuscripts which he consulted in the public libraries.

Paris never was a place much to his mind, and it was less so now than ever, when it presented him with no definite object of pursuit. He therefore returned to Scotland in the spring of the year 1769. He had by this time recovered, in some degree, possession of himself, but he dared not encounter the fascination of the beloved object, or re-engage in the domestic scenes from which he had found it necessary to fly. Turning, therefore, to the scenes of his early life, he was offered the charge of a Catholic congregation at Auchinhalrig, in the county of Banff, which he accepted. The members of this little community were poor, their chapel was in ruins, and the most inveterate rancour subsisted among themselves, and between them and their Protestant neighbours. Mr Geddes, however, was not to be appalled by the prospect of difficulties, however numerous and formidable. His first object was to pull down the old chapel, and to build a new one on the spot. His own house, too, which his biographer dignifies with the name of a parsonage-house, he found necessary to repair almost from the foundation, and he added to it the luxury of an excellent garden, from which he was able, on many occasions, to supply the necessities of his people. In these proceedings, Mr Geddes was not only useful, in directing and overseeing the workmen, but as a workman himself, many of the most important operations being performed with his own hands. Having thus provided for the assembling of his congregation, his next object was to correct that extreme bigotry by which they were characterised. For this end, he laboured to gain their affections by the most punctilious attention to every part of his pastoral duty, and by the most unbounded charity and benevolence. The ceremonies of popery he despised as heartily as any presbyterian. The Scriptures he earnestly recommended to his people, and exhorted them to think for themselves, and to allow the same privilege to others. Many of the peculiarities of popery, indeed, he denounced as most iniquitous, and utterly repugnant to the spirit of genuine catholicity. In his judgment of others, Geddes himself showed the utmost liberality; and he even ventured to appear as a worshipper in the church of a neighbouring parish on different occasions. By these means, if he did not convert to his views the papists of Auchinhalrig, which we believe he did not, he acquired a very high character to himself, and formed many valuable friendships among men of all descriptions. Than this conduct nothing could be better fitted to attain the object which the papists were by this time very generally beginning to entertain—that of obtaining political power and influence; and in this respect, Geddes, by dereliction of principle, did more for sheer cause than all other men beside: yet their zeal could not be restrained, even for this most obvious purpose, and he had the mortification to find that he was provoking very generally the resentment of his clerical brethren. His diocesan bishop, Hay, threatened him with suspension if he did not behave with greater circumspection, particularly in regard to the dangerous and contaminating influence of heretical intercourse; but having no supreme court before which to being the refractory and rebellious priest, the bishop was under the necessity of letting the controversy drop. Unfortunately the poor priest had become personally bound for considerable sums expended in building the chapel and repairing the manse, for the payment of which he had trusted to the liberality of his people. There was no appearance of his expectations being realized, and his creditors—a class of people whom he could not so easily set at defiance as the bishop, becoming clamorous, a "charge of horning," was likely to suspend him more effectually than the order of his diocesan, when, through the friendship of the earl of Traquair, he was introduced to the notice of the duke of Norfolk, who, having learned the extent of the obligations he had come under in his pastoral capacity, claimed the privilege of discharging them as an earnest of future friendship. Geddes was thus relieved from serious embarrassments, but his income was far too scanty to supply his necessities, though they were by no means so numerous as these of many others in his situation. In order to provide for himself without burdening his congregation, he took a small farm at Euzie, in Fochabers, in the vicinity of Auchinhalrig, which he stocked by means of a loan, built a little chapel upon it, where he proposed to officiate as well as at Auchinhalrig, and in imagination saw himself already happy and independent. There have been men of letters, who have been, at the same time, men of business. They have been, however, but few; and Geddes was not of the number. It was in the year 1775 that he commenced his agricultural speculations, and by the year 1778, he found himself in a still deeper state of embarrassment than when he had been relieved by the duke of Norfolk. The expedient he adopted on this occasion, was one that was much more likely to have added to his embarrassments than to have relieved them. He published at London "Select Satires of Horace, translated into English verse, and for the most part adapted to the present times and manners." This publication, contrary to all human probability, succeeded so well that it brought him a clear profit of upwards of one hundred pounds, which, with some friendly aid from other quarters, set him once more clear of pecuniary embarrassments. The remark of one of his biographers on this circumstance ought not to be suppressed:—"To be brought to the brink of ruin by farming and kirk building, and to be saved from it by turning poetaster, must be allowed to be rather out of the usual course of events."

Finding that his pen was of more service to him than his plough, Mr Geddes now seriously thought of quitting his retirement, and trying his fortune in London. He was, however, so strongly attached to his flock, that it might have been long before he put his design into execution, had not a circumstance occurred to give it new vigour. Lord Findlater had about this time married a daughter of count Murray of Melgum, who, being educated abroad, was unacquainted with English. Mr Geddes was employed by his lordship to teach her that language. In the house of his lordship he was introduced to the Rev. Mr Buchanan, who had been tutor to his lordship, and was now minister of the parish of Cullen, with whom he formed a most intimate acquaintance, and did not scruple to attend occasionally upon his ministry in the church of Cullen. This latter circumstance rekindled the long smothered ire of bishop Hay, who sent him an angry remonstrance, which he followed up by suspending him from all his ecclesiastical functions. This at once dissolved the tie between Mr Geddes and his congregation, from whom, in the end of the year 1779, he took an affectionate leave; and selling off what property he possessed at Enzie by public roup, prepared, without regret, to leave once more his native country. His people testified their affection for him, by buying up, with extraordinary avidity every thing that belonged to him, even to the articles of broken cups and saucers. Nor were his protestant friends wanting to him on this occasion. Through their joint influence, the university of Aberdeen stepped forward with praiseworthy liberality, and conferred on him the degree of doctor of laws.

Leaving Enzie, Dr Geddes devoted a few weeks to visits of friendship, and in company with lord Traquair, repaired to London in the beginning of the year 1780. Through the influence of lord Traquair he was almost immediately nominated to be officiating priest in the chapel of the imperial ambassador. The literary fame he had already acquired by his imitations of Horace, and the letters with which he was honoured by his friends in the north, introduced him at once to the most celebrated literary characters of the day, which gave great elasticity to his naturally buoyant spirits. Several libraries, too, both public and private, being thrown open to him, he resumed with redoubled ardour his early project of translating the Bible for the use of his Roman Catholic countrymen. Through the duchess of Gordon he was also introduced to lord Petre, who was like himself a catholic, and was anxious to have a translation of the Bible such as Dr Geddes proposed to make. To enable him to go on without any interruption, his lordship generously allowed him a salary of two hundred pounds a year till the work should be finished, besides being at the expense of whatever private library he might find necessary for his purpose. This was encouragement not only beyond what he could reasonably have hoped for, but equal to all that he could have wished; and the same year he published a sketch of his plan under the title of an "Idea of a new version of the Holy Bible, for the use of the English catholics." This Idea in general, for we have not room to be particular, was "a new and faithful translation of the Bible, from corrected texts of the original, unaccompanied with any gloss, commentary, or annotations, but such as are necessary to ascertain the literal meaning of the text, and free of every sort of interpretation calculated to establish or defend any particular system of religious credence." At the close of this year he ceased to officiate in the imperial ambassador’s chapel, the establishment being suppressed by an order from the emperor Joseph II. He continued to preach, however, occasionally at the chapel in Duke Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, till the Easter holidays of 1782, when he found his time so completely taken up by his literary projects, especially his translation, that he voluntarily withdrew from every stated ministerial function. The following year Dr Geddes paid a visit to Scotland, during which he wrote "Linton, a Tweeddale pastoral, In honour of the birth of a son and heir to the noble house of Traquair." He passed with the earl and his countess on a tour to the south of France, came back with them to Scotland, and shortly after returned to London. He was about this time introduced to Dr Kennicot, by whom he was introduced to Dr Lowth, and both of them took a deep interest in his undertaking. At the suggestion of the letter, Dr Geddes wrote a new prospectus, detailing more fully and explicitly the plan he meant to follow. This was given to the public in 1786; it had a very general circulation, and was well received. In the year 1785, he was elected a corresponding member by the Society of Scottish Antiquaries, - an honour which he acknowledged in a Poetical Epistle to that respectable body. This epistle is printed in the first volume of the transactions of the society, as also a dissertation on the Scoto-Saxon dialect, with the first eclogue of Virgil, and the first idyllium of Theocritus, translated into Scottish verse.

He was now advancing with his translation; but in the year 1787, he published an appendix to his prospectus, in the form of a "Letter addressed to the bishop of London, containing queries, doubts, and difficulties relative to a vernacular version of the Holy Scriptures." He published the same year a letter to Dr Priestly, in which he attempted to prove, by one prescriptive argument, that the divinity of Jesus Christ was a primitive tenet of Christianity. About the same time he published his letter on the case of the Protestant dissenters. In the year 1789, he engaged as a contributor to the Analytical Review, for which he continued to furnish many valuable articles during the succeeding five years and a half. It was during the year just mentioned, that he issues "Proposals for printing by subscription a new translation of the Holy Bible," &c. His "General Answer to the counsels and criticisms that have been communicated to him since the publication of his proposals for printing a New Translation of the Bible," appeared in the year 1790. Of the same date was his "Answer to the bishop of Comana’s Pastoral Letter, by a protesting Catholic," followed by "A letter to the R.H., the archbishop and bishops of England, &c. Carmen Seculare pro Gallica &c. and an Epistola Macaronica ad Fratrem," &c. In the year 1791, he was afflicted with a dangerous fever, and on his recovery, accepted of an invitation to visit lord Petre at his seat at Norfolk. This journey produced "A Norfolk Tale, or a Journey from London to Norwich, with a Prologue and an Epilogue," published in the following year. The same year he published "An Apology for Slavery," a poem, entitled L’Avocat du Diable, &c. and "The first book of the Iliad of Homer, verbally rendered into English verse," &c. Amidst these multifarious associations, he was still proceeding with his translation, and in the year 1792, though his subscription list was far from being filled up, he published, "The first volume of the Holy Bible, or the books accounted sacred by Jews and Christians, otherwise called the books of the Old and New Covenants, faithfully translated from corrected texts of the originals, with various readings, explanatory notes, and critical remarks."

Dr Geddes had by this time engaged a house for himself in Alsop’s Buildings, New Road, Mary-le-bone, which he had fitted up with his own hands in a curious and convenient style. He had also a garden both before and behind his house, which he cultivated with the industry of a day labourer, and with the zeal of a botanizing philospher; he had "a biblical apparatus (a library) through the princely munificence of lord Petre," superior to most individuals, and he wanted only the incense of the world’s applause to this idol of translation, which he had set up to outrage alike the faith of Jews and Christians, to make his triumph perfect and his happiness complete. The vain man had by his "Idea," his "Prospectus," his "Appendix," and his "Answer to counsels and queries," secured, as he supposed, the concurrence of mankind, while he had in fact only excited expectations which, though his talents had been increased a hundred fold, he would have found himself unable to satisfy. What must he have felt or thought when he found that the book, instead of pleasing all the world, as he had vainly hoped, pleased nobody. Christians of every description considered it an insidious attack upon the foundations of their faith, and the Catholics, for whose benefit it was stated to have been mainly intended, were by a pastoral letter from their vicars apostolic forbidden to read it. Geddes, in an address to the public the following year, defended himself with great boldness, laying claim, like every other infidel, to the most fearless honesty and the strictest impartiality. The failure of his hopes, however, affected him so deeply that his biblical studies were for a time nearly suspended, and it required all the attentions of his friends to prevent him from sinking into the deepest despondency. In the meantime, he soothed, or attempted to soothe his chagrin by writing two Latin odes in praise of the French resolution, but which, on the representations of his friends, he allowed to be unpublished at this time a translation of Gresset’s Ver Vert, or the Parrot of Nevers, which did him no honour, the poem having been only a short while before translated more happily by John Gilbert Couper. In the year 1795, he published an Ode to the honourable Thomas Pelham, occasioned by his speech on the Catholic question in the Irish house of commons, which was followed, in 1796, by a Hudibrastic paraphrase of a sermon which had been preached by a Dr Coulthurst on the anniversary of his majesty’s accession, before the university of Cambridge. In 1797, he published "The battle of B*ng*r, or the Church’s Triumph, a comic heroic poem in nine cantors." The subject of this poem was suggested by the notable contest between bishop Warren and Mr Grindly, and it is unquestionably the most finished of all his English poems. The same year he published the second volume of his translation of the Bible, which brought it to the end of the Book of Ruth, beyond which it was not destined in advance in its regular form.

During the two succeeding years he published two burlesque sermons, ridiculing the fast-day sermons of the established clergy, and in the year 1800, his Critical Remarks on the Hebrew Scriptures, corresponding with a new translation of the Bible, vol. I., containing remarks on the Pentateuch. If there had been any doubt on the public mind respecting the principles of Dr Geddes, this volume must have removed it. These remarks are less scurrilous perhaps, but not less impious than those of Thomas Paine, and, professing to be the result of laborious learning, sound philosophy, and a most enlarged and enlightened Christianity, are to weak minds much more dangerous, and to the well informed more offensively disgusting, than even the flippancies of that celebrated unbeliever. They had not, however, the merit of meeting the general ideas of mankind, and we believe are already nearly forgotten. The encouragement with which he commenced his publication was greatly inadequate to meet the expense; and this encouragement, instead of increasing, had greatly fallen off; - the work being printed too, solely at his own expense, he soon found himself involved in pecuniary difficulties, from which he had not the means of extricating himself. Never had a reckless man, however, such a singularly good fortune. We have already seen him twice rescued from ruin in a way, on both occasions, which no one less fortunate than himself could have hoped for, and on this occasion his situation was no sooner disclosed than a plan was devised for his relief, and executed almost without his knowledge. "It is to the credit of the age in which we live," says his biographer, "that, without any further application on his own part, persons of every rank and religious persuasion, protestants and catholics, clergy and laity, nobility and gentry, several of whom had never known him but by name, and many of whom had professed a dislike of his favourite tenets, united in one charitable effort to rescue him from anxiety and distress; nor should it be forgotten that some part at least of the amount subscribed proceeded from the right reverend bench itself. The sum thus collected and expended for him, from the year 1798 to the middle of the year 1800, independent of his annuity from lord Petre, amounted to nine hundred pounds sterling. Nor was this all: measures were taken at the same time to prevent any such disagreeable occurrence in future. In the buoyancy of spirit which this great deliverance excited, he published a modest apology for the Catholics of Great Britain, addressed to all moderate Protestants, particularly to the members of both houses of parliament. This work was published anonymously; but it had been written twenty years before, and from the style and the whispers of his friends, was soon known to be his. It was translated into the French and German languages, and, considered as the work of a man who professed himself to be a catholic is certainly a most singular performance. It was about this time the famous rencounter between William Gifford, author of the Baviad, and Dr Wolcott, better known by the name of Peter Pindar, took place in the shop of Mr Wright, bookseller in Piccadilly, on which Dr Geddes published "Bardomachia, or the Battle of the Bards." This he was at the trouble of composing first in Latin and afterwards translating into English, so that it was published in both languages. In the following year, 1801, Dr Geddes sustained an irreparable loss in the death of his noble patron, lord Petre. His lordship died of an attack of the gout in July 1801, in the sixty-eighth year of his age. By his latter will he bequeathed to Dr Geddes an annuity of one hundred pounds; and his son, the heir of his virtues as well as of his honours, when he intimated the circumstance to the Doctor, politely proposed to add a yearly salary of the same amount. Nor ought it to be suppressed on this occasion, that Mr Timothy Brown of Chiswell street, before Dr Geddes was apprised of lord Petre’s generous intentions, had engaged that the two hundred pounds a year which he was likely to lose by the death of his patron, should be supplied by the voluntary contributions of those friends who had so generously come forward on the late occasion, or in case of their declining it, by an equal salary to be annually paid by himself. Though he was thus no loser in a pecuniary point of view, he felt the void hereby produced in his happiness, and almost in his existence, to be irreparable; and it was long before his mind recovered so much calmness as to reason on the subject, or to admit the sympathies of surviving friends. His grief, however, began to assume a milder character, and he attempted to soothe his feelings by composing for his departed friend a Latin Elegy, and he gave successive proofs that the embers of his habitual hilarity still glowed with a few vital sparks. He did not, however, feel himself at any period sufficiently collected for a regular prosecution of his favourite undertaking. At the pressing request of his friends, he began to prepare for the press the Psalms, to be printed in a separate volume. With the translation he did not get further than the one hundred and eighteenth. A trifling Ode on the restoration of peace, written in Latin, was one of his amusements at this time, and a Latin Elegy on the death of Gilbert Wakefield was the last of his compositions. Mr Wakefield died in the month of September, 1801, when Dr Geddes was already deeply affected with the painful disease that carried him off early in the following spring. Through the whole of the winter, his sufferings must often have been extreme, though he had intervals in which he was comparatively easy. He died suddenly on the 20th of February, 1802, in the sixty-fifth year of his age.

As there has been a story told of Dr Geddes having recanted his opinions on his death-bed, it becomes an imperious duty to state the manner of his death, as related by those who were about him at the time. The rites of that communion to which he professed to belong, were, notwithstanding his avowed contempt for the greater part of them, administered to him by his friend M. St Martin, a doctor of the Sorbonne and professor of divinity. The day before his death, Dr Geddes was visited by this friend, who was anxious to recall him from those aberrations he had made from the faith, and for this purpose had a list of questions drawn up, to which he meant to insist upon having answers. The state into which by this time the Doctor had fallen, rendered this impracticable. Sensible that he was in great danger, M. St Martin endeavoured to rouse him from his lethargy, and proposed to him to receive absolution. Geddes observed that in that case it would be necessary for him to make his confession. M. St Martin, aware that this was beyond his strength, replied that in extremis this was not necessary, that he had only to examine the state of his own mind, and to make a sign when he was prepared. He could not, however, avoid putting a question or two upon the more important points upon which they differed. "You fully," said he, "believe in the Scriptures?" Geddes, rousing himself from his sleep, said " Certainly." "In the doctrine of the Trinity?" "Certainly, but not in the manner you mean." "In the mediation of Jesus Christ?" "No, no, no, —not as you mean; in Jesus as our Saviour—but not in the atonement." After a pause he said, "I consent to all,"—but of these words M. St Martin did not comprehend the meaning. The Doctor shortly after gave the sign that he was ready, and received from M. St Martin absolution in the way he had proposed. It was the intention of M. St Martin to have passed the night with him, but calling in the evening, found that the physician had forbidden any of his friends to be admitted. A domestic, however, in a neighbouring house, of the catholic persuasion, who knocked at the door during the night, just as he was dying, was admitted, and, according to the rites of her church, repeated over him the Creed, Paternoster, and Ave Maria. Dr Geddes opened his eyes as she had concluded, gave her his benediction, and expired.

Perhaps there is not in the history of literary men a character that calls more loudly for animadversion, or that requires a more skilful hand to lay it open, than that of Dr Geddes. He professed a savage sort of straight-forward honesty, that was at war on multiplied occasions with the common charities of life, yet amid his numerous writings, will any man take it on him to collect what were really his opinions upon the most important subjects of human contemplation? He professed himself a zealous catholic; yet of all or nearly all that constitutes a catholic, he has spoken with as much bitterness as it was possible for any protestant to have done. If it be objected that he added to the adjective Catholic the noun Christian, when he says that he admits nothing but what has been taught by Christ, his apostles, and successors in every age and in every place, we would ask how much we are the wiser. He professed to believe in Jesus Christ, and in the perfection of his code, but he held Moses to have been a man to be compared only with Numa and Lycurgus; a man who like them pretended to personal intercourse with the Deity, from whom he never received any immediate communication; a man who had the art to take advantage of rarely occurring natural circumstances, and to persuade the Israelites that they were accomplished under his direction by the immediate power of God; a man, in short, conspicuous above all men as a juggling imposter. Now to the divine mission of Moses, we have the direct testimony of Jesus Christ himself, with the express assurance, that without believing in Moses it was impossible to believe in him. But we cannot here follow out the subject, nor can we enter into any particular analysis of his works, to which the eccentricities of his character, the singularity of his opinions, and the peculiar circumstance of his life, gave for a time an interest, to which they were not at any time entitled. His translation of the Bible, after all the professions he had made, the means he had accumulated, and the expectations he had excited, was a complete failure, and has only added another demonstration in the thousands that had preceded it, how much more easy it is to write fluently and plausibly about great undertakings, than to perform them. We intended here to have noticed more particularly his translation of the first book of the Iliad of Homer, which he undertook for the purpose of demonstrating his superiority to Cowper, but upon second thoughts have forborne to disturb its peaceful slumbers. Upon the whole, Dr Geddes was unquestionably a man of learning and of genius, but from an unhappy temper, and the prepondering influence of arrogance and vanity in his constitution, they were of little avail to himself, and have not been greatly useful to the general interests of mankind.


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