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The Possession of Paradise: A. S. Byatt's reinscription of Milton.

A. S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance (1990) is centrally concerned with etiology. The narrative traces the adventures of two present-day literary scholars, Roland and Maud, in their joint quest for the story about the relationship of two fictional nineteenth-century poets, R. H. Ash and Christabel LaMotte. A series of remarkable discoveries reveals that Ash and LaMotte corresponded, had a brief affair, and conceived a child. At the climactic moment Maud discovers that she herself is directly descended from their daughter. Another character observes, "'How strange for you, Maud, to turn out to be descended from both how strangely appropriate to have been exploring all along the myth--no, the truth--of your own origins'" (547). On one level the novel is the story of a woman's unwitting search for her origins; intricately woven throughout the text, however, in the fictional documents, both contemporary and Victorian, that fill it, is a pervasive attention to the myths--or truths--of the origins of humanity, of myth, and of poetry. In the poetry and letters of Ash and LaMotte and in the "real life" experiences of Roland and Maud, the tropes of garden, man, woman, tree, fruit, and serpent appear and reappear with original as well as familiar meanings. (1)

Byatt's book also reflects a major concern with the activity of reading, including professional reading institutionalized as literary scholarship. In fact, Byatt has described Possession as being "about the relations between readers and writers" ("Reader as Writer" 10). Her characters, often representing various schools of criticism, continuously negotiate their relationships with prior texts. As she ventriloquizes their poetry, private writings, and literary criticism, Byatt imagines her characters in dialogue with their literary forbears. The novel's inter- and intra-textuality, frequently remarked on by critics, give rise to an elaborate system of allusion that evokes many, if not most, of the major poets in English. Given this dual preoccupation with literary history and with myths of origin, it is unsurprising that Byatt makes John Milton, the preeminent poet of cosmogony in English, a major figure in the imaginations of her characters. (2) I argue that Byatt gives significant attention in her novel to a conscious reinscription of Milton, in that several key characters refer specifically and often to Milton as a way of positioning themselves theologically and artistically. In effect, Milton comes to stand in for Christian orthodoxy in the novel, and the nineteenth-century characters' ways of reading Milton allow Byatt to explore various Victorian modes of responding to the challenges to Christianity posed by nineteenth-century developments in science and culture. Byatt's disposition toward these responses further parallels her own use of mythic tropes to suggest a deliberate revision of the Genesis narrative, a revision in which transgression brings not death but life. In this manner she privileges Enlightenment humanism in contrast to Christian dogma and morality; however, the modernist orientation of this project is to some extent qualified by the postmodern reading performed by her characters. Ultimately, Byatt's multifaceted engagement with Milton's poetry and poetics reveals how modern and postmodern norms exist in tension within her novel.

The novel's three central nineteenth-century characters each record obliquely their reactions to Milton and the orthodoxy he represents: R. H. Ash, a popular poet and formidable intellectual; his conventional, timid wife Ellen Ash; and the reclusive but fiercely independent poet Christabel LaMotte. The reader meets each of them through the documents they leave behind--their correspondence, poetry, and journals, all of course ventriloquized by Byatt. Each character becomes a paradigmatic case of a different type of Victorian response to scientific and historical challenges to Christianity. Ash, the omnivorous intellectual well read in contemporary science as well as literature and philosophy, dismisses the truth claims of orthodox Christian doctrine in a Comptean view of history. For Ellen, scientific challenges to Christianity are deeply disturbing, and in order to maintain her equilibrium she must separate the moral content of the Bible, which she continues to regard as absolute, from the threatened historical and scientific content. For LaMotte, spirituality is of paramount importance, but the patriarchy of traditional Christianity in general and of Milton in particular drives her to a more idiosyncratic faith that includes spiritualism as well as regular church attendance. All three characters, as I will show, register their responses to Christianity by their ways of reading and rewriting Milton. Byatt's disposition toward the characters further reveals her pattern of privileging Enlightenment humanism in opposition to Christian orthodoxy.

Ash is the least orthodox and the most comfortable with liberal ideas. Several of his poems "reproduced" in the novel show a marked interest in myths of origin, and his correspondence and biography reveal an amateur scientist conversant with contemporaneous developments in natural history, including Darwinism and geology. Ash's interest in "the origins of life and the nature of generation" is equally biological, mythical, and poetic (269). His epic poetry often mingles mythical and biblical tropes with scientific interrogations.

Two of Ash's poems in particular evoke Paradise Lost: the Norse epic Ragnarok and the lyric/dramatic monologue The Garden of Proserpina. The "excerpts" Byatt has written for the novel show a concentrated attention to questions of etiology, and Byatt's inclusion of classical and biblical allusions invites comparison with Paradise Lost. Ragnarok is described by the narrator as "a poem in twelve books, which some saw as a Christianising of the Norse myth and some trounced as atheistic and diabolically despairing" (12). The excerpt shows a Miltonic interest not only in the story Ash is telling but also in other origin myths. The scene is set in "the middle-garden" where Odin, Honir, and Loki collaboratively create man and woman from logs of ash and alder lying on the seashore. The imagery employed in the description of the scene and the actions of the gods deliberately evoke multiple creation accounts from other sources, much as Milton alludes extensively to his classical precursors in Paradise Lost (for very different reasons, as we shall see). The opening lines relate that the gods have just come from a divine council, presumably narrated earlier in Ragnarok, a detail that serves economically to tie this excerpt to the epic tradition. In the world where the gods find themselves, "All was gleam / Of sun and moon well-wrought, and golden trees / With golden apples inside golden walls" (260). Byatt's imagery pointedly recalls both Eden and the Hesperides of Ovid. Drawing further on classical mythology, Ash describes Loki in Promethean terms: "Loki, the hearth-god, whose consuming fire / First warmed the world," then "flamed in boundless greed." The moment of creating man and woman recalls not Milton but the Bible. Allfather Odin asks, "Shall these trunks live?' and saw the life / The vegetable life, that sang i' th' quick" (261). Ash echoes God's magnificent address to Ezekiel, "Shall these bones live?" (Ezek. 37:3). Finally, and perhaps most compellingly, the final lines of the excerpt show a clear debt to Paradise Lost's famous ending:
 Then Ask stepped forward on the printless shore
 And touched the woman's hand, who clasped fast his.
 Speechless they walked away [...]
 Behind them, first upon the level sand
 A line of darkening prints [...]. (263)

How does this literary debt function in Ash, and how does that function position him in relation to Milton? A letter to LaMotte, written many years after Ragnarok but presented in Possession before this excerpt, begins to answer those questions. Ash writes, "The existence of the same Truths in all Religions is a great argument both for and against the paramount Truthfulness of One" (180). Ash's creation story seems to dwell upon the universality of the elements that comprise various myths of origin, or "the existence of the same Truths in all Religions?' That line of reasoning can lead, according to Ash, to either of two conclusions: the "paramount Truthfulness of One" or of none. (3)

Milton, of course, took the former line. His references to classical mythology, both oblique and straightforward, were intended to expose mythology as a diabolically inspired bastardization of the true story of Satan's rebellion, and man's creation and fall, modified to exalt the fallen angels. (4) When the fallen angels become bards in Book 2, they falsely sing "Thir own Heroic deeds and hapless fall" (549), rehearsing the deceptive ("partial") tales they would later inspire pagan poets to write. When Paradise Lost cites classical mythology, then, it does so with a view to correcting the half-truths and rectifying the errors contained within the Greco-Roman myths as well as to demonstrating the diabolic source of those myths. Milton explains the similarity of origin myths by showing that all the myths derive from the one historical truth related in the Bible and in Paradise Lost.

Ash, on the other hand, has the opposite project in mind. To him (although he hesitates to admit it to LaMotte), the similarities in mythic material indicate that all myths arise out of the human imagination, none out of historical reality. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in The Garden of Proserpina, excerpted at the start of chapter 26, in which Roland discovers his own latent poetic imagination. The poem is a riddle, and the dues are framed in the terms of origin myths:
 There is a place to which all Poets come [...]
 These things are there. The garden and the tree
 The serpent at its root, the fruit of gold
 The woman in the shadow of the boughs [...]. (503)

The poem then observes that "They are and were there" not only in Genesis but also "In the Hesperidean grove" where the dragon Ladon "waited through eternity" and in "the northern ice / In a high frozen fastness." In searching for the origins of these origins, the poem asks:
 And are these places shadows of one Place?
 Those trees of one Tree? And the mythic beast [...]
 Was he a dark Lord whom we dispossessed?
 Or did our minds frame him to name ourselves
 Our fierceness and our guile [...]?

In other words, is there an historical source or purely an imaginative one for the garden, tree, and serpent? Was/is the deity an actual entity, or was/is he a human invention to explain the mysteries of ourselves? Ash's answer is embedded in the subsequent lines:
 The first men named this place and named the world.
 They made the words for it: garden and tree
 Dragon or snake and woman, grass and gold
 And apples. They made names and poetry.
 The things were what they named and made them. (504)

Ash's lyric proceeds to trace the etiology of imaginative expression as a series of steps: first, man names things; then, by mixing the names, he creates metaphor or "visible truth." Later, "all / Was intertwined and serpentining," as metaphors took on increasingly abstract and universal meanings (504-05). Eventually, "consequential stories [stood] where the Tree / Once stood in solitude and steady shone" (505). Metaphors thus coalesce into myths that assume the appearance of historical reality to subsequent generations. The names, the metaphors, and finally the stories themselves arise from man's fertile imagination. As Ivana Djordjevic points out, this process is essentially derived from Giambattista Vico's Principia di una Scienza Nuova. Vico's search for the origins of mythology in history is obviously central to Ash's anti-Miltonic treatment of the etiology of etiology that we have already seen in his poetry. It was apparently while studying Vico, and preparing to write his dramatic monologue "Swammerdam" about the Dutch biologist who discovered ovaries as the origin of generation, that Ash wrote the first letters to LaMotte that he left in the volume of Vico until their discovery by Roland more than a century later. And those letters generated the love affair that, in turn, engendered Maud.

Ash's unorthodoxy in including the biblical creation account among classical and Norse mythology unnerves both Christabel LaMotte and Ellen Ash. In one of her first letters to Ash, LaMotte tells him her reaction to Ragnarok, which she had read years before: "Your great poem Ragnarok was the occasion of quite the worst crisis in the life of my simple religious faith, that I have ever experienced, or hope to experience [...]. [You are] as wise as the serpent about all the most subtle and searching questionings and probings of the Grounds of our Belief that in our time have been most persistently and unremittingly explored" (176). LaMotte's admiring but disturbed reaction exemplifies the emergent quality of Ash's modernism. His ideas are current in the vital debates of the time, but most non-scientists are not comfortable with them or their conclusions. LaMotte equates him and his insidiously "subtle and searching questionings and probings" of origins with the lying serpent whose temptation to knowledge resulted in the fall of humankind.

Ash responds to LaMotte's concern about his poem with bewilderment, saying that at the time he wrote Ragnarok "I did not myself question Biblical certainties--or the faith handed down by my fathers and theirs before them" (179). He acknowledges, however, that some people, including Ellen as his fiancee at the time, believed the poem to be approaching the heretical. Ash relates to LaMotte his response to those concerns:
 I was at the time startled and surprised that my Poem should have
 been construed as any kind of infidelity--for I meant it rather as
 a reassertion of the Universal Truth of the living presence of
 Allfather (under whatever Name) [...]. [I] saw no difficulty in
 supposing that the dead Norse God of Light might prefigure--or
 figure--the dead Son of God Who is the Father of Christendom.
 But, as you perceived, this is a two-handed engine, a slicing weapon
 that cuts both ways, this of figuration--to say that the Truth of
 the Tale is in the meaning, that the Tale but symbolises an eternal
 verity, is one step on the road to the parity of all tales And the
 existence of the same Truths in all Religions is a great argument
 both for and against the paramount Truthfulness of One. (179-80)

Ash frames the issue in terms that evoke Milton in more than one way. Most fundamentally, as already noted, Ash acknowledges that the apparent existence of "the Universal Truth" could indicate, as Milton believed, that only the Christian narrative is true; other religious ideas and stories are false to the degree that they deviate from received Christianity. Conversely, the similarity of religions could point to their equal validity as human attempts to explain and order existence (and, as a corollary to that, the equal falsity of all such narratives in the historical sense). Ash here implies that he holds the unorthodox view of the "parity of all [etiological] tales" and, consequently, that he rejects Milton's beliefs. Nevertheless, in delineating the opposite conclusions to be drawn from a study of origin myths, Ash cites Milton's enigmatic two-handed engine in "Lycidas," using the metaphor against Milton by suggesting that ideas Milton put into circulation can easily be construed in a way opposite to that of their author's intention.

Whereas Milton replaced pagan narratives with the Christian narrative, Ash in turn replaces the Christian narrative with a Comptean one. When Byatt has Ash resist and rewrite Milton, she effectively joins Ash in putting Milton in the same category as the ancient mythmakers, whose unenlightened search for universal truth led them to fabricate etiological stories and worship imagined entities. Ash's modernist methods, employing Vichian "scientific" analyses to produce an anthropological reading of myth and poetry, allow or require him to refute Milton's theology in a phenomenological treatment of religion-as-myth. Byatt thus privileges the Enlightenment model of scientific inquiry coupled with religious skepticism: Ash is usually "right" in method and tone even when he is "wrong" about specific biological matters. His healthy yet not disrespectful skepticism is linked with extraordinary productivity, literary success, and intellectual sophistication, not to mention personal kindness. Overall, Byatt's reinscription of Milton renders Ash's unorthodoxy as salutary and progressive, a refreshingly modern contrast to Milton's supposedly backward-looking dogma.

This contrast is more evident when Ash's response to Milton is compared to that of his wife. Ellen meets the challenges to her faith by a dogged insistence on the Bible's moral authority as distinguished from its historical accuracy. As Byatt portrays Ellen, this response is linked to intellectual timidity and sexual prudery. Ellen's journal testifies to her considerable literary background as well as her ability to employ allusions, and her references to Milton specifically are numerous enough to alert the reader to the importance of comparing her reaction to Milton with that of her husband. (5) Ellen's use of Miltonic ideas shows her thoroughgoing Christian orthodoxy. Her first journal entry introduces a concern with scientific challenges to biblical historicity. Ellen's theological assumptions are clearly disturbed by her reading of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology. She can recover only a sort of uneasy equilibrium by separating the moral teaching from the historical narrative: "If the Tale of Noah's Deluge turns out to be a fine poetic invention, shall I [...] thereby cease to pay attention to its message about the universal punishment of sin?" (243). Ellen is tentatively willing to accept the symbolic meaning of Scripture whether or not it is historically reliable, a move that Ash calls "one step on the road to the parity of all tales"; however, her cautious query is subordinated to her insistence on the moral truths to be derived from the story.

Byatt associates Ellen's theological orthodoxy with a sexual prudery that inhibits her. Most conspicuously, Ellen's neurotic frigidity means that her marriage is never consummated. There are also broader consequences of her sexual repression. For example, while her husband enjoys a liberating sexual liaison with LaMotte, Ellen agonizes over what to do with a pregnant, unmarried servant. When Ellen calls on her imposing minister for help, their intimidating intervention drives the girl to flee. Ellen's angst about sexuality therefore renders her unable to assist a desperate girl in spite of Ellen's generally benevolent intentions. Byatt's association of Christian orthodoxy, intellectual timidity, and sexual repression in the character of Ellen is an indication of her prejudice against the strict religious attitudes that Byatt associates with Miltonic Puritanism.

A third response to Victorian dilemmas of faith is seen in LaMotte's coded negotiation of Miltonic theology. In her early correspondence with Ash, LaMotte is troubled by his apparent unorthodoxy and in fact presses him for a profession of faith: "Tell me--He Lives--for you" (184). However, her faith is far from the moral earnestness of Ellen Ash. Trained in mythography by her father, LaMotte takes a sophisticated view of the cultural functions of etiological tales; moreover, she is already interested in spiritualism, specifically in reincarnation. The experiences of her love affair with Ash, the secret birth of her child in Brittany, and her return to England to live with her sister, who adopts her daughter, all contribute to a changed outlook on Christianity that is reflected in her epic The Fairy Melusine and in her late letter to Ash on his deathbed. In these works her engagement with Milton reveals her moving beyond dogma to an enlarged notion of spirituality with a feminist slant.

The Fairy Melusine concerns a subject more properly in the realm of folklore than myth, involving not the cosmic narrative of Ragnarok or Paradise Lost but a medieval legend. However, with respect to the Breton oral tradition that forms so large a part of LaMotte's literary imagination, the line between myth and folklore is frequently blurred. (6) Concerning the mixed genres in The Fairy Melusine, Ellen Ash comments that "Its aspirations to cosmic reflection might be thought to sit uneasily with its Fairytale nature" (134). LaMotte opens her epic with an invocation to the muse Mnemosyne, who links "My modern mind [...] / To the dark dreaming Origins of our race," yet the invocation closes with a return to latter-day theological certainties figured domestically: "[...] back again to sleep, / In Christian comfort, in a decent bed" (318; my emphasis).

The subject of LaMotte's epic poem is a half-woman, half-serpent fairy who gains mortality and human form by her marriage to a knight, provided he never observe her on Saturday, when she takes serpent form. She supernaturally builds castles and cultivates land for him while bearing him ten sons, each with a marked deformity. When he inevitably violates the prohibition, he sees her in mermaid form in the bath. Subsequently losing her home, children, and mortal life, she is condemned to eternal wandering and haunting of her former home. Byatt provides just enough of the epic's beginning to explain Maud's description of the poem as "'A Subversive Female Cosmogony'" (43). Not only does LaMotte manage to give her legendary subject cosmic import, but her cosmogony, like that of Ash, is also subversive of the orthodoxy of the Bible and Paradise Lost. LaMotte's subversion, however, is distinctly gendered. Her heroine is both woman and serpent yet not evil. An immortal spirit with an irreproachable longing for "settled hearths and fixed human homes" (318), she barters her supernatural powers to a knight in exchange for marriage and morality. Her eventual demise is caused by the man's trespass, not her own. (7)

LaMotte's references to cosmic time and space establish the poem's epic scope while echoing the geological and evolutionary emphasis we have already seen in Ash's work:
 Electric currents run from eye to eye
 And pole to pole [...]
 [...] the waves pile fragments up
 Smooth sands compacted, skull on shell on scrap
 Of horny carapace on silex sparks
 Sandstone and chalk and grit, and out of these
 Sculpts dunes like dinosaurs and mammoth banks
 And breaks them back to flying specks of stuff. (315)

LaMotte tentatively identifies Melusine as one of a class of "faeries or Fates" who "were Angels once / Now neither damn'd nor blessed." (8) Further, she contrasts the hapless, aimless fairies with "The Angels of the Lord, from Heaven's Gate," who "March helmeted in gold and silver ranks / Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers" (316). This use of the titles of Milton's angels (see Paradise Lost 5.601, 772, 840; 10.460) clearly shows LaMotte's coded resistance to Milton, for her fairies are feminized and disempowered. Unlike the indomitable armored ranks of angels, their "soft hands cannot shift the fixed chains / Of cause and law" (317).

Following the proem, the first incidents of the epic echo and reinscribe Eden The knight, a desperately weary fugitive from an accidental slaying, arrives at a fountain ringed by a luxurious garden and kept by the fantastically beautiful Melusine. When she offers him a drink,
 All dazed with glamour was he, in her gaze.
 She ministered unto his extreme need
 And his face took the brightness of her glance
 Now was he hers, if she should ask of him
 Body or soul, he would have offered all
 And seeing this, at last, the Fairy smiled. (322-23)

LaMotte substitutes Milton's forbidden and mortal fruit with life-giving water. In a reversal of the Miltonic narrative, the gift does not make the knight a fugitive from divine justice but rather begins the process of restoring him who is already a fugitive The knight's surrender to Melusine ("Body or soul"), however, evokes Adam's fateful decision in Paradise Lost to eat the fruit and incur the penalty of death for the sake of his love for Eve. Melusine's pleased reaction to her awareness of her power is an understated parallel to that of Eve, who "embrac'd [Adam], and for joy / Tenderly wept" (9.990-91) after naively exclaiming, "O glorious trial of exceeding Love" (9.961). By means of paralleled and inverted incidents and imagery, LaMotte's epic reinscribes Paradise Lost in ways that both empower and evoke sympathy for the feminine Other.

LaMotte's direct references to Milton in her final letter to Ash, never read but buried with him until unearthed by twentieth-century sleuths, show the idiosyncratic sort of faith she developed late in life. She quotes a passage near the end of Samson Agonistes that compares Samson to a serpent encroaching on a group of domestic farm birds: she is the "tame villatic Fowl" and Ash the "Dragon" (1695, 1692). We recall that she referred to Ash as a serpent in the Miltonic sense in her first substantive letter to him; at that time she reacted to his "subtle and searching questionings and probings" about the origin of religious belief. In this her last letter, however, images of Eden are conspicuously absent. Although the paradox of death in life and the notion of the felix culpa are applicable to her, she does not make any connection to postlapsarian Eden. It is not her loss of virtue that haunts her but her loss of autonomy: the serpent's threat is not temptation but consumption, and that consumption is not entirely unwelcome. It is fitting, therefore, that these final reflections on Milton are not from Paradise Lost but from Samson Agonistes, for Samson's ultimate triumph and claim on immortality came about together with his self-annihilation. Similarly, LaMotte's knowing transgression of Victorian sexual mores brought a sort of death even as it brought her immortality in the form both of her daughter and of her best poetry, including The Fairy Melusine.

In this last letter, however, LaMotte's strongest self-identification is with Milton's phoenix, the second epic simile Milton uses to characterize Samson. LaMotte quotes lines 1699-1705 of Samson Agonistes in speaking of the "self-begotten bird" that "From out her ashy womb now teemed / Revives, reflourishes, then vigorous most / When most unactive deemed" (546). By isolating this metaphor from its context in a retelling of a biblical story, LaMotte substitutes a pagan and self-sufficient reincarnation for the Christian version of resurrection to which she had devoutly referred in her earlier correspondence (see 182). When LaMotte describes the poetic sensibility of Walter, her and Ash's grandson, she may be trying to pose a Romantic alternative to the cursed serpents in Milton and Genesis: "I have taught him much of the Ancient Mariner: he recites the passage of the blessing of the snakes [...] most feelingly, and his own eyes are bright with it" (546).

Byatt thus makes LaMotte a portrait of the Victorian intellectual woman with an uneasy relationship to Christianity and its attendant patriarchy. A "'diligent churchgoer'" (the phrase is Maud's) even late in life (81), LaMotte also attends a seance in an effort to communicate with her dead housemate/ lover, who committed suicide when she learned of LaMotte's affair. She seems to have an impulse to return "back again to sleep, / In Christian comfort, in a decent bed," but her enlarged life experience and her resistance to Miltonic patriarchy make it impossible for her to "dwell" within Christianity in any simple way. Byatt's sympathy for LaMotte's resistance to Christianity is evident in her description of the real-life model she chose for the character. Byatt first considered Christina Rossetti but later opted for Emily Dickinson as the basis for LaMotte's character: "Christina Rossetti was too Christian, too self-destructive [...]. I wanted someone tougher" (qtd. in Rothstein 22). (9) To be "too Christian" is to lack toughness or to be, in effect, like Ellen Ash.

Thus in Randolph Ash, Ellen Ash, and Christabel LaMotte, Byatt presents three Victorian responses to challenges to Christianity, all refracted through the characters' readings of Milton. Byatt's privileging of Ash's and LaMotte's responses over that of Ellen indicates her predilection for regarding orthodox Christianity--or perhaps dogma of any kind as both stultifying and repressive. However, to understand fully the significance of Byatt's reinscription of Milton, it is necessary as well to examine ways in which the action of Possession similarly revises the Genesis narrative. While her twentieth-century characters do not comment directly on Milton, Byatt herself does so in the way she contrives her narrative to evoke various mythical tropes, lust as Ash mingles references to a variety of mythical sources in The Garden of Proserpina, so Byatt's novel effects a similar pastiche by means of what Caroline Webb terms "literalized metaphors" (183), or what I prefer to call reenacted myths. These are incidents, rendered realistically, that are contrived to evoke and indeed revise mythical and biblical material. Thus, just as she had Ash rewrite Milton's reinscription of classical mythology, so Byatt offers a reinscription of the Genesis narrative. For Byatt's book is avowedly a romance, which involves, as the epigraph from Nathaniel Hawthorne indicates, both a freedom to depart from strict verisimilitude and a desire to make connections between past and present. The reenacted myths achieve both aims to marvelous effect. (10)

For example, Edenic overtones suffuse the account of Roland's discovery of intellectual and literary fulfillment, which occurs in the garden above his basement fiat. The landlady had lured Roland and his girlfriend Val to the apartment with visions of light, space, and fertility, showing them the garden and letting them sample the "gold" apricots growing there (21). Roland's subsequent prohibition from the garden symbolizes his creative torpor, as he remains trapped by his poverty and his stultifying relationship with Val. The novel opens with Roland in this state of mind, reading The Garden of Proserpina mechanically and making misguided queries about golden apples from his analysis of Vico. By the novel's end, however, after he has pursued to the end the clues of the mysterious letter he found in Ash's copy of Vico, Roland's reading of the same poem is charged with intuitive understanding and pleasure. At the same time the all-seeing landlady, the enforcer of the garden prohibition, is for once absent, and Roland "thought there was no reason why he should not go out into the garden" (514). By defying the prohibition, Roland sets the stage for his initiation into poetic knowledge. Here he reflects that Andrew Marvell, Milton's assistant, had written his poems in a neighboring garden, just beyond the (inevitably) "serpentining wall" (515). Marvell's poetry bears an obvious significance to LaMotte and Ash because of its focus on the brief but glorious span of love. (Christabel calls Marvell "a poet after my own heart" [313].) As Roland moves away from the house, words coalesce into poems that "came like rain and were real" (516), and he joins Ash in "the place to which all Poets come" (503). In Byatt's revision, therefore, the man's transgression of the prohibition results not in death but in enlightenment. Roland is not expelled from paradise but welcomed into it as he reads Ash's poem describing paradise and experiences the reading in a transcendent way.

In a similar way Maud is made to perform the role of Melusine, a figure with ties to both Eve and the serpent. (11) In an often-cited scene Roland and Maud reenact the roles of the knight and Melusine when Maud discovers Roland peeking through the keyhole of the bathroom, just as the knight did. The imagery used to describe Maud is consistently serpentine, green, and watery. When we recall the associations that Milton makes in Paradise Lost between Eve and Satan, Sin, and the serpent in Eden, the nature of Byatt's reversal becomes clear. (12) Byatt rewrites the story so as to privilege and empower rather than chastise the feminine-serpentine principle, just as is implied in LaMotte's shift from the cursed snakes of Edenic figuration to the blessed snakes of the Ancient Mariner.

One of the most striking and significant of the reenacted myths appears in Byatt's charming postscript in which Ash meets his daughter Maia, who is wholly ignorant of her parentage, in an Edenic meadow. In the scene Byatt self-consciously recreates the mythic setting and has her two characters reenact the mythic behavior that the novel has alluded to throughout. The meadow is figured as supernaturally beautiful and fecund. Over twenty species of flowers are enumerated--all of which, by Byatt's own admission, cannot bloom simultaneously. (13) Songbirds and butterflies of every color complete the Edenic scene. "It was abundant, it seemed as though it must go on shining forever," Byatt tells us, granting the meadow a seeming eternality of both space and time and hinting further at the neo-mythical quality of this chapter (552).

The behavior of the characters also evokes mythic tropes. Ash is careful to protect Maia's prelapsarian innocence, keeping his signs of affection "very matter-of-fact and brief, so as not to frighten her" (553). A prohibition hangs over the scene as Ash reminds his daughter that she must not eat belladonna flowers. Mythic resonances occur in Ash's brief comments about the origin of Maia's name and her recollection of her pony Hermes. God-like, Ash asks questions about her parentage, questions to which he already knows the untrue answers she will give, and he also knows the true answers regarding her origins. After listening to her chatter, Ash observes that "'You seem extraordinarily happy;" for Maia knows only bliss in her prelapsarian Eden. The unreality of the scene comes to the surface in their conversation when Ash asks Maia for a lock of hair. She rejoins, "'Like a fairy story,'" and he concurs, "'Just so'" (554). Indeed, this entire scene reads exactly like a fairy story, and the two people enact an (un)real fairy story of their own, which partakes of the myth of Proserpine and Ceres as well as of the Eden narrative.

Byatt climaxes the scene, and indeed the book, with a quotation from Paradise Lost that epitomizes Byatt's appropriation of Milton's poetic language to the exclusion of his theological intent. Ash ceremonially crowns Maia with a daisy chain and remarks, "'Full beautiful, a fairy's child. Or like Proserpine.'" He then asks whether she knows
 "that fair field
 Of Enna, where Proserpina, gathering flowers,
 Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis
 Was gathered, which cost Ceres all that pain
 To seek her through the world." (554)

The allusion to Proserpine in Paradise Lost comes toward the end of the description of Paradise as seen through Satan's cormorant eyes from the top of the Tree of Life (4.268-72). The gorgeous superabundance of flowers and songbirds is clearly a source for Byatt's meadow. Milton describes "Flow'rs worthy of Paradise" as "profuse on Hill and Dale and Plain" (4.241,243), "Flow'rs of all Hue, and without Thorn the Rose" (4.256). Just as Milton's Eden enjoys "Eternal Spring" (4.268), so Byatt's May meadow seems eternal.

Within this description of Eden, Milton tips his hand with regard to his use of classical sources. On the Garden's trees "fruit burnisht with Golden Rind / Hung amiable, Hesperian Fables true, / If true, here only" (4.249-51). The myth of the golden apples of Hesperia, Milton says, is true only in the sense that such apples did indeed hang in Paradise, a fact that the fallen angels altered and taught to Ovid in the form of a fable in order to mislead humanity about the truth of its origin. In other words, Paradise is the origin of the "Hesperian Fables" just as the story told in Paradise Lost is the historical origin of every other origin myth before or since. This belief is precisely what Ash jettisons from the preceding quotation by omitting the first word of the line--"Not" (4.268). Whereas Milton negates from the outset any real comparison between Eden and Enna, Ash emphasizes their essential similitude. Paradise for Milton is "Not that fair field of Enna" nor, as the passage continues, is it "that sweet Grove / Of Daphne by Orontes" nor "that Nyseian Isle / Girt with the River Triton" (4.272-73, 275-76). Milton's Paradise is emphatically "wide remote" from these pagan imitations (4.284). Recalling Ash's poem The Garden of Proserpina, in which the gardens of Eden, of Hesperia, and of the World are identified as different types of the same essential thing, we discover Byatt's consciousness of having replaced Milton's exclusive orthodoxy with Ash's Vichian, phenomenological reading of Genesis as a mythological product.

Ash's and Milton's contrasted readings of prior texts have further implications for aesthetic theory. Milton declares that his purpose is "to tell how, if Art could tell, / How [...] the crisped Brooks / [...] / Ran Nectar" (4.236-37, 240). Milton thus calls into question art's ability to describe the scene that Satan saw. Taken to its logical conclusion, these lines indicate Milton's belief that art can only attempt to represent an absolute and eternal truth that lies by definition beyond art. Ash's view is very different. In the Ragnarok excerpt we have already examined, nature before man is described as "Like nothing else, for no man-mind was there / To name [...] in any way" (260). In the absence of names and metaphors to describe things, those things can hardly be said to exist. Then Honir, speaking of the potential of man, says, "This lovely world / Would be both known and loved" and man should "speak its beauties, then first beautiful / When known to be so" (261). Man, not God, here speaks the world into being. The poetic, figuring work of humanity is the sine qua non for the existence or creation of beauty. The poetry precedes and makes the beauty, not the other way around.

These reenacted myths, evoking Miltonic and mythical tropes only to transform them, make it possible to see Possession as a revision of the Genesis narrative. In Byatt's version "transgressions" are rewarded rather than punished. The forbidden fruit that the nineteenth-century lovers taste has no severe consequences for Ash (even his doubt about the survival of his child is relieved, though only Byatt and the reader know it) and in fact augments his creativity. It is not divine retribution but patently unjust social mores, in the form of the sexual double standard, that cause painful consequences for LaMotte. Despite her great suffering, in old age she is grateful to Ash for both Maia and The Fairy Melusine; her reward for transgression is biological and literary fertility. In the rewritten myths of the present day, transgression brings knowledge without pain. Maud and Roland's sexual union liberates and humanizes Maud, and for Roland it is a triumph of and reward for his good nature. The final sentences of the novel, apart from the postscript, contain Byatt's own rewriting of the ending of Paradise Lost: the narrator greets the lovers the morning after with "a strange new smell. It was [...] the smell of bitten apples. It was the smell of death and destruction[,] and it smelled fresh and lively and hopeful" (551). The bitten apple, or the defied prohibition, unites death and life, but the hope and liveliness clearly prevail. What has been destroyed is Roland's diffidence and self-doubt, Maud's inhibition and severity; their new-found love is life-giving and hopeful for both of them.

Possession therefore participates in the modern inclination, in effect, to decide that the serpent spoke truth (in the mythic or symbolic sense) and to regard fallenness as liberating and enlightening. This is the pervasive message of Byatt's appropriation of Milton: orthodox Christianity carries with it dogma and scruples that are inhibiting to the mind and emotions; intellectual and affective satisfaction may be found in a rejection of that orthodoxy. I have shown how Ash's modernist credentials are established by his challenge to Milton's theological stance, which is expressed in their contrasting readings of mythic material. On the other hand, Ellen Ash's orthodoxy is associated with intellectual timidity, literary unfulfillment, and sexual repression. LaMotte's gradual departure from Christian orthodoxy is partly expressed by her feminist resistance to Milton; this departure becomes her means to find her creative voice as well as her access to romantic love. Although there is no specifically Christian cultural norm for Byatt's twentieth-century characters either to succumb to or extricate themselves from, they too find fulfillment and freedom in the defiance of prohibition. The reenacted myths staged within the novel, including Roland's discovery of poetic knowledge in the forbidden garden and Maud and Roland's sexual union accompanied by "the smell of bitten apples" point to Byatt's inclination to treat Christian orthodoxy as an existential hindrance, an outlook reinforced by the reinscriptions of Milton that Byatt puts in the mouths-or pens--of her nineteenth-century characters.

My analysis of the appropriation of Milton that is performed throughout Possession, both in the structure of the novel itself and by means of the ventriloquized voices of its various characters, may explain the persistent critical disagreement about whether the novel participates in a modern or postmodern sensibility. (14) In fact, Byatt's reading and rewriting of Milton showcase the evident tensions in Possession between modern and postmodern reading practices. The self-reflexivity and intertextuality that are on spectacular display throughout the book, as much in the narrative structure and voice as in the consciousness of the characters, clearly participate in a postmodern approach to subjectivity. At the same time, the novel's pervasive critique of politicized postmodern reading methods, to which Louise Yelin first drew attention, just as clearly evinces a desire on Byatt's part to satirize the postmodern assumptions she puts on display. Possession was widely hailed as a postmodern tour de force when it appeared, and articles that characterize it as such have continued to appear in recent years. (15) Other critics have problematized that characterization on the grounds that Byatt's postmodern narrative techniques exist side by side with a fundamental commitment to humanist modernism. Jackie Buxton, for example, argues that Possession remains "deeply suspicious of 'post-modernism' whether it is construed as an aesthetic practice or as a historical condition," so that the text reflects "modernist ideology in post-modernist guise" (216-17). (16)

Disputants on the subject invariably refer extensively to Byatt's representations of good and bad reading. Indeed, Byatt's critique of postmodernism is most visible in her representations of reading. She lacerates Fergus Wolff's reduction of reading to a vicious careerism in which brilliant but hollow literary theory becomes his passport to desirable jobs and into Maud's bed. She exposes Mortimer Cropper's reading as prurient voyeurism. Even Maud, with her bloodless anatomizing, and Roland, with his hapless deconstruction-that-isn't, are shown as different types of failed readers. Instead, Byatt wants to take the reader--as she takes Roland--into the garden where all poets come, a mysterious and magical place where reading is "heady" (both visceral and intellectual) and where theory qua theory can be, indeed must be, excluded (511). This prelapsarian, innocent reading, it would seem, thrived in the culture of the humanist intellectuals of the nineteenth century, whose wide-ranging command of science, classics, and modern thought equipped them both to analyze and to intuit literature in a pure way now rare.

Byatt praises this type of reading as "innocent" as opposed to knowing and "pleasurable" as opposed to "active and busy," and her stated intent in Possession is to capture and enable that type of reading for her readers ("Reader as Writer" 8-9, 12). This essentially modernist-humanist aesthetic is complicated, however, by the fact that this "good" kind of reading, which is performed by Ash, LaMotte, and finally Roland in the garden scene, occurs in ways that partake of postmodern linguistic and aesthetic theory. We have already seen the deconstructive strategies that Ash uses in his reinscription of Milton. The pastiche of mythic material he assembles is used to deconstruct Milton's supposed premodern dogmatism. Milton's poetic exposition of the common tropes and structures of mythology becomes a "two-handed engine" that "cuts both ways," thereby enabling Ash to use Milton's figures, language, and reading of mythology to reveal what he sees as their own inevitable self-destruction and to display his ability to supersede those limitations.

LaMotte does much the same thing by exposing and subverting the patriarchy of Milton's epic. As we have seen, her Melusine can be read as a feminine challenge to traditional patriarchal mythopoetics in general and to Paradise Lost and Genesis in particular, for LaMotte writes the history of a minor fairy, the disempowered and female immortal who, doomed to periodic serpentine metamorphosis, is the obvious descendant of Milton's demons. By giving a voice to the marginalized, and further by reversing roles and outcomes in her reinscription of Eden, LaMotte joins Ash in a deconstruction of Milton.

Even Roland, at the moment of his epiphany when he becomes at once a poet and an ideal reader, learns to read in a way more postmodern than modern. The narrator says disparagingly that Roland "had been taught that language was essentially inadequate, that it could never speak what was there, that it only spoke itself." This is precisely the kind of thinking that has paralyzed Roland in the past, but Byatt's account of his epiphany does more to affirm this poststructural linguistic theory than to refute it, for Roland learns that "the lists were the important thing, the words that named things, the language of poetry" (513). In this sentence and throughout the novel, poetic words and language are presented as important precisely insofar as they signify only themselves. This is particularly true of The Garden of Proserpiha, the poem that is the occasion for Roland's epiphany. We have already seen how that poem asserts that language does not reflect external reality or even have a real-world referent: the myths did not really happen, and Ash reasons backward to say that, even at the level of the correspondence of word and object, "things were what [the poets] named and made them." Poetry itself makes the world for people by means of the language it uses to explain the world to them. In this scene Roland thus is made to discover the fluidity and interchangeability of linguistic and literary components: "Spenser's golden apples in the Faerie Queene, Proserpina's garden, glistening bright among the place's ashes and cinders, [the poet] may have seen in his mind's eye, apple of his eye, the golden fruit of the Primavera, may have seen Paradise Lost, in the garden where Eve recalled Pomona and Proserpina" (511). This passage epitomizes the interchangeability that drives much of the ludic delight of the novel--the gymnastics that Byatt performs on the level of language (puns on Ash's name, for example) and narrative (the reenacted myths we have examined). However, such literary games work on the assumption, not discredited after all, that "language [...] could never speak what was there, that it only spoke itself." This assumption underlies and enables Byatt's appropriation of Milton, even to the point of including the title of his epic, ambiguously reduced to a phrase rather than a title, in her breezy pastiche.

There is, then, a tension between the humanist celebration of an "innocent" reading experience and the postmodern approach evinced in the novel's appropriation of Milton. The deconstructive readings of Milton, woven into the warp and woof of Byatt's celebration of the timeless pleasures of reading, open up a fissure in Byatt's text between her modern and postmodern sympathies. The overall project of reinscribing Milton, occurring as it does on several levels throughout Possession, is performed partly in defiance of and partly in defense of the modernist-humanist norms celebrated in her passages about reading. Byatt affirms the vital importance to the human psyche of personal, literary, and cosmic origins, a project partaking of modernism; at the same time, her representation of the discovery and interpretation of those origins through reading reflects postmodern linguistic and aesthetic assumptions.

Baylor University


(1) Several critics have shed welcome light on Byatt's extensive use of fairy tales and folk tales in Possession. See Flegel, Sanchez, Ashworth, and Chinn. However, Byatt's use of Greco-Roman myths and the Genesis narrative has not received particular attention, aside from Shiller's references to mythology in her account of Byatt's historiography.

(2) Milton's place in Byatt's allusory constellation has been curiously overlooked, although articles have appeared examining Byatt's treatment of Tennyson (Kelly) and Donne (Sabine). Yelin, for example, cites Byatt's rewriting of Browning's "Childe Roland," Tennyson's "Maud," Meredith's "Modern Love," and Coleridge's "Christabel" without mentioning Paradise Lost (38). Similarly, Milton is inexplicably absent from Buxton's list of Byatt's allusions to Wordsworth, Coleridge, Tennyson, Browning, Donne, and Herbert (208). Morse's attempt to trace the novel's abundant intertextual connections includes a mention of a few of the most salient allusions to Milton. Gitzen does include Milton in his list of literary debts in Possession, and his brief comments about Edenic settings largely coincide with my own more detailed analysis.

(3) Djordjevic's unpacking of Vico's distinction between "physical truth" and "metaphysical (or ideal) truth" is helpful in understanding this concept. See also Shiller, who analyzes Byatt's emphasis on the "frustrating, imprecise, and finally rewarding process" of attempting to interpret the past rather than on "the discovery of historical 'truths'" (552).

(4) See Gallagher, Hughes, and Bush for a sample of the scholarly support for this reading.

(5) In her article on Ellen's journal as a "public private" text, Shiffman notes that the "female diarist emerges as a powerful literary talent" as she negotiates her vexed position as the writer of private material about a public figure (95).

(6) LaMotte's father, whom she remembers as a sublime teller of tales, was also the author of a Vichian work on Mythologie Francaise. Her poem The Drowned City draws on "Breton mythology" and "reflect[s] a cultural conflict between two types of civilization, the Indo-European patriarchy [...] and the more primitive, instinctive, earthy paganism," according to LaMotte's modern editor Leonora Stern, yet Maud refers to it as "a Breton legend" (149).

(7) The feminist implications of LaMotte's choice and handling of her subject have been amply studied, with Chinn emphasizing the empowerment of the female demigoddess, Djordjevic analyzing Byatt's provision of a female mythology omitted by Vico, and both Djordjevic and Flegel pointing out that in the Melusine story, as in most mythologies, female power is rendered monstrous and is punished.

(8) Milton's fallen angels are punished by a temporary transformation into snakes, which is then established as a periodic "humbling [on] certain number'd days" each year (Paradise Lost 10.576). Milton's editor connects this with legends such as that in Aristo's Orlando Furioso in which the fairy Manto is condemned to spend one day a week in the form of a serpent.

(9) See Chinn's elucidation of the many associations between Dickinson and LaMotte. I am indebted to Chinn for this reference and for many other helpful responses to this essay.

(10) See Bronfen for an excellent study of Byatt's use of the romance genre and its relationship to the ethics of reading. Shinn also discusses the project of cyclically "resurrect[ing] the living past [...] which lives on in life and art rather than in objects and historical records" (168).

(11) Chinn's analysis of the ways LaMotte resembles Melusine also applies to Maud in several key respects (197-99). Gitzen unpacks several of the Maud-LaMotte-Melusine parallels as well (91-92).

(12) The imagistic and literal connections between Eve and Satan, Sin, and the serpent are elaborated in Gilbert and Gubar's classic study, "Milton's Bogey: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers."

(13) This comment was made during a question-and-answer session in the course of Byatt's visit to Baylor University in November 1993 for the Beall-Russell Lecture Series.

(14) I am indebted to my colleague Phillip Donnelly for helping me to think through these concepts.

(15) See Walsh and Becker. Buxton summarizes commentary on the subject prior to 1996.

(16) Djordjevic similarly concludes that the novel evinces postmodern trappings in an essentially modernist project, and Yelin argues that Possession recuperates Arnoldian criticism with the addition of the feminine.


Ashworth, Ann. "Fairy Tales in A. S. Byatt's Possession." Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 15 (1994): 93-94.

Becker, Susanne. "Postmodernism's Happy Ending: Possession!" Engendering Realism And Postrnodernism. Ed. Beate Neumeier. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001. 17-30.

Bronfen, Elisabeth. "Romancing Difference, Courting Coherence: A. S. Byatt's Possession as Postmodern Moral Fiction." Why Literature Matters: Theories and Functions of Literature. Ed. Rudiger Ahrens and Laurenz Volkmann. Heidelberg: Winter, 1996. 117-34.

Bush, Douglas. Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry. Rev. ed. NewYork: Norton, 1963. 251-97.

Buxton, Jackie. "'What's Love Got to Do with It?': Postmodernism and Possession." English Studies in Canada 22 (1996): 199-219.

Byatt, A. S. Possession: A Romance. New York: Random, 1990.

--. "The Reader as Writer, the Writer as Reader." The Beall-Russell Lecture in the Humanities. Baylor University. Waco, Texas. 1 Nov. 1993.

Chinn, Nancy. "'I Am My Own Riddle'--A. S. Byatt's Christabel LaMotte: Emily Dickinson and Melusina." Papers on Language and Literature 37 (2001): 179204.

Djordjevic, Ivana. "In the Footsteps of Giambattista Vico: Patterns of Signification in A. S. Byatt's Possession." Anglia: Zeitschrifr fur Englische Philologie 115 (1997): 44-83.

Flegel, Monica. "Enchanted Readings and Fairy Tale Endings in A. S. Byatt's Possession." English Studies in Canada 24 (1998): 413-30.

Gallagher, Philip. "Paradise Lost and the Greek Theogony." English Literary Renaissance 9 (1979): 121-48.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. "Milton's Bogey: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers." The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979. 187-212.

Gitzen, Julian. "A. S. Byatt's Self-Mirroring Art." Critique 36 (1995): 83-95.

Hughes, Merritt Y. Ten Perspectives on Milton. New Haven: Yale UP, 1965.

Kelly, Kathleen Coyne. "'No--I Am Out--I Am Out of My Tower and My Wits': The Lady of Shalott in A. S. Byatt's Possession." On Arthurian Women: Essays in Memory of Maureen Fries. Ed. Bonnie Wheeler. Dallas: Scriptorium, 2001. 283-94.

Milton, John. John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. Upper Saddle River (NJ): Prentice, 1957.

Morse, Deborah Denenholz. "Crossing the Boundaries: The Female Artist and the Sacred Word in A. S. Byatt's Possession." British Women Writing Fiction. Ed. Abby H. P. Werlock. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2000. 148-74.

Rothstein, Mervyn. "Best Seller Breaks Rule on Crossing the Atlantic." New York Times 31 Jan. 1991: C17, 22.

Sabine, Maureen. "'Thou Art the Best of Mee': A. S. Byatt's Possession and the Literary Possession of Donne." John Donne Journal 14 (1995): 127-48.

Sanchez, Victoria. "A. S. Byatt's Possession: A Fairy Tale Romance." Southern Folklore 52 (1995): 33-52.

Shiffman, Adrienne. "'Burn What They Should Not See': The Private Journal as Public Text in A. S. Byatt's Possession." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 20 (2001): 93-106.

Shiller, Dana. "The Redemptive Past in the Neo-Victorian Novel" Studies in the Novel 29 (1997): 538-60.

Shinn, Thelma. "'What's in a Word?': Possessing A. S. Byatt's Metonymic Novel." Papers on Language and Literature 31 (1995): 164-83.

Walsh, Chris. "Postmodernist Reflections: A. S. Byatt's Possession." Theme Parks, Rainforests and Sprouting Wastelands: European Essays on Theory and Performance in Contemporary British Fiction. Ed. Richard Todd and Luisa Flora. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000. 185-94.

Webb, Caroline. "History through Metaphor: Woolf's Orlando and Byatt's Possession: A Romance." Virginia Woolfi Emerging Perspectives. Ed. Mark Hussey and Vara Neverow. NewYork: Pace UP, 1994. 182-88.

Yelin, Louise. "Cultural Cartography: A. S. Byatt's Possession and the Politics of Victorian Studies." Victorian Newsletter 81 (1992): 38-41.

Susan E. Colon, Assistant Professor of Great Texts in the Honors Program at Baylor University, is completing a monograph on mid-Victorian professionalism and the novel, with chapters on George Eliot, Benjamin Disraeli, Anthony Trollope, John Ruskin, and Octavia Hill. She has previously contributed an article on George Gissing to English Literature in Transition.
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Author:Colon, Susan E.
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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