Dactylic hexameter
Dactyl (poetry)
A dactyl is a foot in meter in poetry. In quantitative verse, such as Greek or Latin, a dactyl is a long syllable followed by two short syllables, as determined by syllable weight...

Hexameter is a metrical line of verse consisting of six feet. It was the standard epic metre in classical Greek and Latin literature, such as in the Iliad and Aeneid. Its use in other genres of composition include Horace's satires, and Ovid's Metamorphoses. According to Greek mythology, hexameter...

(also known as "heroic hexameter") is a form of meter
Meter (poetry)
In poetry, metre is the basic rhythmic structure of a verse or lines in verse. Many traditional verse forms prescribe a specific verse metre, or a certain set of metres alternating in a particular order. The study of metres and forms of versification is known as prosody...

 in poetry or a rhythmic scheme. It is traditionally associated with the quantitative meter of classical epic poetry
Epic poetry
An epic is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation. Oral poetry may qualify as an epic, and Albert Lord and Milman Parry have argued that classical epics were fundamentally an oral poetic form...

 in both Greek
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

 and Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

, and was consequently considered to be the Grand Style of classical poetry. The premier examples of its use are Homer
In the Western classical tradition Homer , is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.When he lived is...

's Iliad
The Iliad is an epic poem in dactylic hexameters, traditionally attributed to Homer. Set during the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek states, it tells of the battles and events during the weeks of a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles...

and Odyssey
The Odyssey is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is, in part, a sequel to the Iliad, the other work ascribed to Homer. The poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon, and is the second—the Iliad being the first—extant work of Western literature...

and Virgil
Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil or Vergil in English , was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is known for three major works of Latin literature, the Eclogues , the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid...

's Aeneid
The Aeneid is a Latin epic poem, written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BC, that tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who travelled to Italy, where he became the ancestor of the Romans. It is composed of roughly 10,000 lines in dactylic hexameter...



The meter consists of lines made from six ("hexa") feet
Foot (prosody)
The foot is the basic metrical unit that generates a line of verse in most Western traditions of poetry, including English accentual-syllabic verse and the quantitative meter of classical ancient Greek and Latin poetry. The unit is composed of syllables, the number of which is limited, with a few...

. In strict dactylic hexameter, each of these feet would be a dactyl
Dactyl (poetry)
A dactyl is a foot in meter in poetry. In quantitative verse, such as Greek or Latin, a dactyl is a long syllable followed by two short syllables, as determined by syllable weight...

, but classical meter allows for the substitution of a spondee
In poetry, a spondee is a metrical foot consisting of two long syllables, as determined by syllable weight in classical meters, or two stressed syllables, as determined by stress in modern meters...

 in place of a dactyl in most positions. Specifically, the first four feet can either be dactyls or spondees more or less freely. The fifth foot is frequently a dactyl (around 95% of the time in Homer). The sixth foot is always a spondee, though it may be anceps
In Greek and Latin meter, an anceps syllable is a syllable in a metrical line which can be either short or long. An anceps syllable may be called "free" or "irrational" depending on the type of meter being discussed....

. Thus the dactylic line most normally looks as follows:
— U | — U| — U | — U | — u u | — X

(note that is a long syllable, u a short syllable and U either one long or two shorts and X anceps syllable)

As in all classical verse forms, the phenomenon of brevis in longo
Brevis in longo
In Greek and Latin meter, a short syllable at the end of a line can be counted as long; this phenomenon is known as brevis in longo.The term comes from Latin, and means "a short [syllable] in place of a long [syllable]." Brevis in longo is possible in any classical meter that requires a long...

is observed, so the last syllable
A syllable is a unit of organization for a sequence of speech sounds. For example, the word water is composed of two syllables: wa and ter. A syllable is typically made up of a syllable nucleus with optional initial and final margins .Syllables are often considered the phonological "building...

 can actually be short or long.

Hexameters also have a primary caesura
thumb|100px|An example of a caesura in modern western music notation.In meter, a caesura is a complete pause in a line of poetry or in a musical composition. The plural form of caesura is caesuras or caesurae...

 — a break in sense, much like the function of a comma
A comma is a type of punctuation mark . The word comes from the Greek komma , which means something cut off or a short clause.Comma may also refer to:* Comma , a type of interval in music theory...

 in prose — at one of several normal positions: After the first syllable in the third foot (the "masculine" caesura); after the second syllable in the third foot if the third foot is a dactyl (the "feminine" caesura); after the first syllable of the fourth foot; or after the first syllable of the second foot (the latter two often occur together in a line, breaking it into three separate units). The first possible caesura that one encounters in a line is considered the main caesura.

In addition, hexameters have two bridges
Bridge (prosody)
A bridge in poetic meter is a point in a line where a break in a word-unit cannot occur....

, places where there very rarely is a break in a word-unit. The first, known as Meyer's Bridge, is in the second foot: if the second foot is a dactyl, the two short syllables must be part of the same word-unit. The second, known as Hermann's Bridge, is the same rule in the fourth foot: if the fourth foot is a dactyl, the two short syllables must also be part of the same word-unit.

Hexameters are frequently enjambed
Enjambment or enjambement is the breaking of a syntactic unit by the end of a line or between two verses. It is to be contrasted with end-stopping, where each linguistic unit corresponds with a single line, and caesura, in which the linguistic unit ends mid-line...

, which helps to create the long, flowing narrative of epic. They are generally considered the most grandiose and formal meter.

An English language
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

 example of the dactylic hexameter, in quantitative meter:
Down in a | deep dark | hole sat an | old pig | munching a | bean stalk

As the absurd meaning of this example demonstrates, quantitative meter is extremely difficult to construct in English. Here is an example in normal stress meter (the first line of Longfellow's "Evangeline
Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, is an epic poem published in 1847 by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poem follows an Acadian girl named Evangeline and her search for her lost love Gabriel, set during the time of the Expulsion of the Acadians.The idea for the poem came from...

This is the | forest pri | meval. The | murmuring | pines and the | hemlocks

The "foot" is often compared to a musical measure and the long and short syllables to half note
Half note
In music, a half note or minim is a note played for half the duration of a whole note and twice the duration of a quarter note...

s (minims) and quarter notes (crotchets), respectively.

Homer’s meter

The hexameter was first used by early Greek poets of the oral tradition, and the most complete extant examples of their works are the Iliad
The Iliad is an epic poem in dactylic hexameters, traditionally attributed to Homer. Set during the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek states, it tells of the battles and events during the weeks of a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles...

and the Odyssey
The Odyssey is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is, in part, a sequel to the Iliad, the other work ascribed to Homer. The poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon, and is the second—the Iliad being the first—extant work of Western literature...

, which influenced the authors of all later classical epics that survive today. Early epic poetry was also accompanied by music, and pitch changes
Pitch accent
Pitch accent is a linguistic term of convenience for a variety of restricted tone systems that use variations in pitch to give prominence to a syllable or mora within a word. The placement of this tone or the way it is realized can give different meanings to otherwise similar words...

 associated with the accented Greek must have highlighted the melody, though the exact mechanism is still a topic of discussion.

The Homeric poems arrange words in the line so that there is an interplay between the metrical ictus—the first long syllable of each foot—and the natural, spoken accent of words. If these two features of the language coincide too frequently, they overemphasize each other and the hexameter becomes sing-songy. Nevertheless, some reinforcement is desirable so that the poem has a natural rhythm. Balancing these two considerations is what eventually leads to rules regarding the correct placement of the caesura and breaks between words; in general, word breaks occur in the middle of metrical feet, while accent and ictus coincide only near the end of the line.

The first line of Homer’s Iliad—“Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles”—provides an example:
μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος

Dividing the line into metrical units:
μῆνιν ἄ | ειδε, θε | ά, Πη | ληϊά | δεω Ἀχι | λῆος – dactyl, dactyl, spondee, dactyl, dactyl, trochee.

Note how the word endings do not coincide with the end of a metrical foot; for the early part of the line this forces the natural accent of each word to lie in the middle of a foot, playing against the natural rhythm of the ictus.

This line also includes a masculine caesura after θέα, a natural break that separates the line into two logical parts. Unlike later writers, Homeric lines more commonly employ the feminine caesura; an example occurs in Iliad I.5 “thus the plan of Zeus came to fulfillment”:
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
οἰω | νοῖσί τε | πᾶσι, Δι | ὸς δ’ ἐτε | λείετο | βουλή,

Homer’s hexameters contain a far higher proportion of dactyls than later hexameter poetry. They are also characterised by a laxer following of verse principles that the authors of later epics almost invariably adhered to. For example, Homer allows spondaic fifth feet (albeit not often), whereas many later authors virtually never did. There are also exceptions to Meyer’s Bridge and Hermann’s Bridge in Homer (albeit rare), but such violations are exceedingly rare in a later author like Callimachus
Callimachus was a native of the Greek colony of Cyrene, Libya. He was a noted poet, critic and scholar at the Library of Alexandria and enjoyed the patronage of the Egyptian–Greek Pharaohs Ptolemy II Philadelphus and Ptolemy III Euergetes...


Homer also altered the forms of words to allow them to fit the hexameter, typically by using a dialectal form: ptolis is an epic form used instead of the Attic polis wherever it is necessary for the meter. On occasion, the names of characters themselves actually seem to have been altered: the spelling of the name of Homer’s character Polydamas, Pouludamas, appears to be an alternative rendering of the metrically unviable Poludamas (“subduer of many”).

Finally, even after accepting the various alterations admitted by Homer, some lines remain impossible to scan, e.g. Iliad I.108 “not a good word spoken nor brought to pass”:
ἐσθλὸν δ’ οὐτέ τί πω εἶπας ἔπος οὔτ’ ἐτέλεσσας

The first three feet of this line scan spondee-dactyl-spondee, but the fourth foot of -πας ἔπος has three consecutive short syllables. These metrical inconsistencies (along with a knowledge of comparative linguistics) have led scholars to infer the presence of a lost digamma
Digamma is an archaic letter of the Greek alphabet which originally stood for the sound /w/ and later remained in use only as a numeral symbol for the number "6"...

 in the original Ionic text of the poem. In this example, the word ἔπος was originally ϝέπος in Ionian; the presence of this glide consonant lengthens the last syllable of the preceding εἶπας and corrects the apparent defect in the meter. This example demonstrates the oral tradition of the Homeric epics that flourished long before they were written down sometime in the 7th century BC.

In spite of the occasional exceptions in early epic, most of the later rules of hexameter composition have their origins in the methods and practices of Homer.

Latin hexameter

The hexameter came into Latin as an adaptation from Greek long after the practice of singing the epics had faded. Consequentially, the properties of the meter were learned as specific "rules" rather than as a natural result of musical expression. Also, because the Latin language generally has a higher percentage of long syllables than Greek, it is by nature more spondaic than Greek. These factors caused the Latin hexameter to take on distinct Latin characteristics.

The earliest example of the use of hexameter in Latin poetry is that of the Annales of Ennius
Quintus Ennius was a writer during the period of the Roman Republic, and is often considered the father of Roman poetry. He was of Calabrian descent...

, which established the dactylic hexameter as the standard for later Latin epic. Later Republican writers, such as Lucretius
Titus Lucretius Carus was a Roman poet and philosopher. His only known work is an epic philosophical poem laying out the beliefs of Epicureanism, De rerum natura, translated into English as On the Nature of Things or "On the Nature of the Universe".Virtually no details have come down concerning...

, Catullus
Gaius Valerius Catullus was a Latin poet of the Republican period. His surviving works are still read widely, and continue to influence poetry and other forms of art.-Biography:...

 and even Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero , was a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, political theorist, and Roman constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the equestrian order, and is widely considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.He introduced the Romans to the chief...

, wrote their own compositions in the meter and it was at this time that many of the principles of Latin hexameter were firmly established, ones that would govern later writers such as Virgil
Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil or Vergil in English , was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is known for three major works of Latin literature, the Eclogues , the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid...

, Ovid
Publius Ovidius Naso , known as Ovid in the English-speaking world, was a Roman poet who is best known as the author of the three major collections of erotic poetry: Heroides, Amores, and Ars Amatoria...

, Lucan
Marcus Annaeus Lucanus
Marcus Annaeus Lucanus , better known in English as Lucan, was a Roman poet, born in Corduba , in the Hispania Baetica. Despite his short life, he is regarded as one of the outstanding figures of the Imperial Latin period...

, and Juvenal. Virgil
Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil or Vergil in English , was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is known for three major works of Latin literature, the Eclogues , the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid...

's opening line for the Aeneid
The Aeneid is a Latin epic poem, written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BC, that tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who travelled to Italy, where he became the ancestor of the Romans. It is composed of roughly 10,000 lines in dactylic hexameter...

 is a classic example of Latin hexameter:
Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris (dactyl, dactyl, spondee, spondee, dactyl, spondee)

As in Greek, lines were arranged such that the metrically long syllables—those occurring at the beginning of a foot—avoided the natural stress of a word. In the first few feet of the meter, meter and stress were expected to clash, while in the final few feet they were expected to resolve and coincide—an effect that gives each line a natural "dum-ditty-dum-dum" ("shave and a haircut") rhythm to close. Such an arrangement is a balance between an exaggerated emphasis on the metre—which would cause the verse to be sing-songy—and the need to provide some repeated rhythmic guide for skilled recitation.

In the following example of Ennius's early Latin hexameter composition, metrical weight ("ictus") falls on the first and last syllables of certabant; the ictus is therefore opposed to the natural stress on the second syllable when the word is pronouned. Similarly, the second syllable of the words urbem and Romam carry the metrical ictus even though the first is naturally stressed in typical pronunciation. In the closing feet of the line, the natural stress that falls on the third syllable of Remoramne and the second syllable of vocarent coincide with the metrical ictus and produce the characteristic "shave and a haircut" ending:
certabant urbem Romam Remoramne vocarent.
(Annales 1.86)

Like their Greek predecessors, classical Latin poets avoided a large number of word breaks at the ends of foot divisions except between the fourth and fifth, where it was encouraged. In order to preserve the rhythmic close, Latin poets avoided the placement of a single syllable or four-syllable word at the end of a line. The caesura is also handled far more strictly, with Homer's feminine caesura becoming exceedingly rare, and the second-foot caesura always paired with one in the fourth.

One example of the evolution of the Latin verse form can be seen in a comparative analysis of the use of spondees in Ennius' time vs. the Augustan age. The repeated use of the heavily spondaic line came to be frowned upon, as well as the use of a high proportion of spondees in both of the first two feet. The following lines of Ennius would not have been felt admissible by later authors since they both contain repeated spondees at the beginning of consecutive lines:
his verbis: "o gnata, tibi sunt ante ferendae
Aerumnae, post ex fluvio fortuna resistet."
(Annales 1.42f)

Virgil and the Augustan poets

By the age of Augustus, poets like Virgil closely adhered to the rules of the meter and approached it in a highly rhetorical way, looking for effects that can be exploited in skilled recitation. For example, the following line from the Aeneid (VIII.596) describes the movement of rushing horses and how "a hoof shakes the crumbling field with a galloping sound":
quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum

This line is made up of five dactyls and a closing spondee, an unusual rhythmic arrangement that imitates the described action. A similar effect is found in VIII.452, where Virgil describes how the blacksmith sons of Vulcan "take up their arms with great strength one to another" in forging Aeneas' shield:
illi inter sese multa ui bracchia tollunt

The line consists of all spondees except for the usual dactyl in the fifth foot, and is meant to mimic the pounding sound of the work. A third example that mixes the two effects comes from I.42, where Juno pouts that Athena was allowed to use Jove's thunderbolts to destroy Ajax ("she hurled Jove's quick fire from the clouds"):
Ipsa Jovis rapidum jaculata e nubibus ignem

This line is nearly all dactyls except for the spondee at -lata e. This change in rhythm paired with the harsh elision is intended to emphasize the crash of Athena's thunderbolt.

Virgil will occasionally deviate from the strict rules of the meter to produce a special effect. One example from I.105 describing a ship at sea during a storm has Virgil violating metrical standards to place a single-syllable word at the end of the line:
...et undis
dat latus; insequitur cumulo praeruptus aquae mons.

The boat "gives its side to the waves; there comes next in a heap a steep mountain of water." By placing the monosyllable mons at the end of the line, Virgil interrupts the usual "shave and a haircut" pattern to produce a jarring rhythm, an effect that echoes the crash of a large wave against the side of a ship.

One final, amusing example that comments on the importance Roman poets placed on their verse rules comes from the Ars Poetica
Ars Poetica
Ars Poetica is a term meaning "The Art of Poetry" or "On the Nature of Poetry". Early examples of Ars Poetica by Aristotle and Horace have survived and have since spawned many other poems that bear the same name...

 of Horace
Quintus Horatius Flaccus , known in the English-speaking world as Horace, was the leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus.-Life:...

, line 263:
Non quivis videt inmodulata poemata iudex,

The line, which lacks a proper caesura, is translated "Not every critic sees an inharmonious verse."

Silver Age and later heroic verse

The verse innovations of the Augustan writers were carefully imitated by their successors in the Silver Age of Latin Literature
Latin literature
Latin literature includes the essays, histories, poems, plays, and other writings of the ancient Romans. In many ways, it seems to be a continuation of Greek literature, using many of the same forms...

. The verse form itself then was little changed as the quality of a poet's hexameter was judged against the standard set by Virgil and the other Augustan poets, a respect for literary precedent encompassed by the Latin word aemulatio. Deviations were generally regarded as idiosyncrasies or hallmarks of personal style, and were not imitated by later poets. Juvenal
The Satires are a collection of satirical poems by the Latin author Juvenal written in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries AD.Juvenal is credited with sixteen known poems divided among five books; all are in the Roman genre of satire, which, at its most basic in the time of the author, comprised a...

, for example, was fond of occasionally creating verses that placed a sense break between the fourth and fifth foot (instead of in the usual caesura positions), but this technique—-known as the bucolic diaeresis-—did not catch on with other poets.

In the late empire, writers experimented again by adding unusual restrictions to the standard hexameter. The rhopalic verse of Ausonius
Decimius Magnus Ausonius was a Latin poet and rhetorician, born at Burdigala .-Biography:Decimius Magnus Ausonius was born in Bordeaux in ca. 310. His father was a noted physician of Greek ancestry and his mother was descended on both sides from long-established aristocratic Gallo-Roman families...

 is a good example; besides following the standard hexameter pattern, each word in the line is one syllable longer than the previous, e.g.:
Spes, deus, aeternae stationis conciliator,
si castis precibus veniales invigilamus,
his, pater, oratis placabilis adstipulare.

Also notable is the tendency among late grammarians to thoroughly dissect the hexameters of Virgil and earlier poets. A treatise on poetry by Diomedes Grammaticus
Diomedes Grammaticus
Diomedes Grammaticus was a Latin grammarian who probably lived in the late 4th century AD. He wrote a grammatical treatise, known either as De Oratione et Partibus Orationis et Vario Genere Metrorum libri III or Ars grammatica in three books, dedicated to a certain Athanasius. Since he is...

 is a good example, as this work (among other things) categorizes dactylic hexameter verses in ways that were later interpreted under the golden line
Golden line
The golden line is a type of Latin dactylic hexameter frequently mentioned in Latin classrooms in English speaking countries and in contemporary scholarship written in English.-Definition:...

 rubric. Independently, these two trends show the form becoming highly artificial—more like a puzzle to solve than a medium for personal poetic expression.

By the Middle Ages, some writers adopted more relaxed versions of the meter. Bernard of Cluny
Bernard of Cluny
Bernard of Cluny was a Benedictine monk of the first half of the 12th century, a poet, satirist, and hymn-writer, author of the famous verses De contemtu mundi, "On Contempt for the World"....

, for example, employs it in his De Contemptu Mundi, but ignores classical conventions in favor or accentual effects and predictable rhyme both within and between verses, e.g.:
Hora novissima, tempora pessima sunt — vigilemus.
Ecce minaciter imminet arbiter ille supremus.
Imminet imminet ut mala terminet, æqua coronet,
Recta remuneret, anxia liberet, æthera donet.
(I.1-4: These are the last days, the worst of times: let us keep watch. Behold the menacing arrival of the supreme Judge. He is coming, he is coming to end evil, crown the just, reward the right, set the worried free, and give the skies.)

Not all Medieval writers are so at odds with the Virgilian standard, and with the rediscovery of classical literaure later Medieval and Renaissance writers are far more orthodox, but by then the form had become an academic exercise. Petrarch
Francesco Petrarca , known in English as Petrarch, was an Italian scholar, poet and one of the earliest humanists. Petrarch is often called the "Father of Humanism"...

, for example, devoted much time to his Africa
Africa (Petrarch)
Africa is an epic poem in Latin hexameters by the 14th century Italian poet Petrarch . It tells the story of the Second Punic War, in which the Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded Italy, but Roman forces were eventually victorious after an invasion of north Africa led by Publius Cornelius Scipio...

, a dactylic hexameter epic on Scipio Africanus
Scipio Africanus
Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus , also known as Scipio Africanus and Scipio the Elder, was a general in the Second Punic War and statesman of the Roman Republic...

, but this work was unappreciated in his time and remains little read today. In contrast, Dante
Delivery of Advanced Network Technology to Europe is a not-for-profit organisation that plans, builds and operates the international networks that interconnect the various national research and education networks in Europe and surrounding regions...

 decided to write his epic The Divine Comedy
The Divine Comedy
The Divine Comedy is an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri between 1308 and his death in 1321. It is widely considered the preeminent work of Italian literature, and is seen as one of the greatest works of world literature...

 in Italian—a choice that defied the traditional epic choice of Latin dactylic hexameters—and produced a masterpiece beloved both then and now.

With the New Latin
New Latin
The term New Latin, or Neo-Latin, is used to describe the Latin language used in original works created between c. 1500 and c. 1900. Among other uses, Latin during this period was employed in scholarly and scientific publications...

 period, the language itself came to be regarded as a medium only for "serious" and learned expression, a view that left little room for Latin poetry. The emergence of Recent Latin
Recent Latin
Contemporary Latin is the form of the Latin language used from the end of the 19th century through to the present. Various kinds of contemporary Latin can be distinguished. On the one hand there is its symbolic survival in areas like taxonomy and others as the result of the widespread presence of...

in the 20th century restored classical orthodoxy among Latinists and sparked a general (if still academic) interest in the beauty of Latin poetry. Today, the modern Latin poets who use the dactylic hexameter are generally as faithful to Virgil as Rome's Silver Age poets.

External links

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