Editorial Introduction

WILD FLOWERS; OR, PASTORAL AND LOCAL POETRY (1806)

CONTENTS

Editors' Introduction

Abner and the Widow Jones: a Familiar Ballad

To My Old Oak Table

The Horkey: a Provincial Ballad

The Broken Crutch: a Tale

Shooter’s Hill

A Visit to Ranelagh

Love of the Country: Written at Clare-Hall, Herts. June 1804

The Woodland Hallo

Barnham Water

Mary’s Evening Sigh

Editors' Introduction to Good Tidings; or, News from the Farm

Good Tidings; or, News from the Farm



Introduction

Wild Flowers; or, Pastoral and Local Poetry (1806) was Bloomfield’s third collection. Slighter than its predecessor, Rural Tales, it continued in the same vein, comprising tales and ballads telling stories of villagers and village customs, loco-descriptive poems on local places and sentimental songs. To this familiar mixture Bloomfield added an ode, of sorts—‘To My Old Oak Table’, in which, in a lengthy prosopopeia, he addressed his writing desk and pondered the passing of time. Wild Flowers also collected the poem on vaccination, Good Tidings; or, News from the Farm that had been published alone in 1804.

The poems dated from the four-year period since Rural Tales, and they reflect Bloomfield’s professionalization. Having given up his shoemaking trade, and having been plied with books by literary gentlefolk who came to visit him, he had read more widely in poetry and poetics, and begun to formulate opinions concerning style and diction. Wordsworth was a positive influence, and Amelia Opie a negative one, as he explained in a letter to his brother of 2 September 1802 (Letter 94):

there is much truth in Wordsworth’s preface where he says that he had tried to come near the language of Men, and the language of Men is not backwards! I have a full persuasion that this is the greatest blemish of many poems, and has often a tendency to weaken the force of the line and diminish the ardour of the reader. Milton, no doubt, has done it to advantage; and when there comes another Milton he shall have my permission to do it too. Perhaps as inversions abound generally in sonnets, it may be the principal cause of my disrelish for them.

The conclusion of poetical pieces, and the conclusion of sections and divisions therein certainly ought to improve, line by line, so as to finish with a twang, as the Boy said of his whip. A weak line at a close, is like a dying note of a weak voice when it should be full and sonorous; and full of soul; I could easily find instances but will leave the application to be made as you read whatever may next come into your hand.

I have perhaps an unfounded aversion to tying three lines together in a measure where the ear expects but two. In Dryden’s Virgil I find it very frequent, and cannot see the advantage of it, you will of course not wonder that there are none to be found in what I have ventured into the world; and as I have thus far succeeded without, will not begin now.

The choice of phrases in Ballads and Songs, and perhaps more in serious pieces, is of much importance; a common use of old worn out words I do not like, such as erst, whilom, and a thousand more; and yet to take up and use a word but just getting into circulation, newly adopted, or new coined, is like placing a new bright penny piece among a range of old ones, it will look like a broken rank, and besides run great hazard of rousing the risibility that arises from contempt rather than the smile due to true humour, suppose by way of illustrating this point, I had said originally in the Suffolk Ballad

And laid aside her Lucks and twitches
And to the Hutch she reach’d her hand
And gave him out his Sunday small-clothes!

Perhaps Breeches will one day be as old fashioned as doublet and jerkin, as in another case though the song says ‘With good old leathern bottle, and ale that looks so brown’ and yet I doubt that in another fifty years a leather bottle will not be found but in the song.

Compound Epithets I do not much like; because they are often such as we never use in conversation; there are three in my ‘Word to the young ladies’ which I deem such as are often used in conversation, ‘full blown,’ ‘out-run’ but ‘half-expanded’ is not so common. In a poem by Mrs. Opie I find the following which are not used in conversation, Grief-impeded, fragrance-breathing, &c and I think many may be found in most poems, but I am only telling you my notions of excellence, let every one chuse his own path.

The poems in Wild Flowers practise what the letter preaches, completing a movement away from the Thomsonian diction of The Farmer’s Boy that had begun in Rural Tales. ‘Barnham Water’, is an instance. Written shortly after this avowal of Wordsworthian rustic plainness, it bears traces of a reading of Lyrical Ballads, being a first-person account of a journey on foot through a familiar landscape, told in colloquial diction and featuring rhetorical questions and reflections on the place’s effect on the speaker’s reflective mind:

What was it rous’d my soul to love?
What made the simple brook so dear?
It glided like the weary dove,
And never brook seem’d half so clear.
Cool pass’d the current o’er my feet,
Its shelving brink for rest was made,
But every charm was incomplete,
For Barnham Water wants a shade.
There, faint beneath the fervid sun,
I gaz’d in ruminating mood;
For who can see the current run
And snatch no feast of mental food?
‘Keep pure thy soul,’ it seem’d to say,
‘Keep that fair path by wisdom trod,
That thou may’st hope to wind thy way,
To fame worth boasting, and to God.’

Certainly the poem had begun as Bloomfield knew ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ had begun: he recorded in a letter that it was the unexpected beauty of the landscape, experienced when revisiting the area on a misty autumn day, that moved him to write a description of an earlier visit in the heat of summer.

The morning I left Bury turn’d out very foggy, and I was glad that I had determined to ride inside. At about half past six there appear’d a compleat semicircle or rainbow nearly in the West, which was evidently produced by the sun on the fog, the colour was pale, and not varied or mix’d. I observed particularly that as we ascended the high ground on the south of Sudbury we gradually surmounted the fog and found a fine clear morning; and that it has not dissipated, but lay on a level with the hill, filling up the whole valley; and watching its motions I perceived at many miles distance that as the day advanced, the fog had made a sensible and collected elevation and become a cloud, moving I believe nearly south-west—… Barnham Water has set my brains a-gadding, and I fear I shall not get rid of the subject untill I have given it a suit of cloaths. (Letter 96; 1 October 1802)

The resultant poem seems almost self-consciously to consider embracing the role of the Wordsworthian nature-poet, only to stop at a self-erected barrier when Bloomfield concludes that his Muse is not fitted for lofty explorations of the imagination: the nature that moves him to verse is simply too flat and bare for Romanticism:

Whatever hurts my country’s fame,
When wits and mountaineers deride,
To me grows serious, for I name
My native plains and streams with pride.
No mountain charms have I to sing,
No loftier minstrel’s rights invade;
From trifles oft my raptures spring;
—Sweet Barnham Water wants a shade.

As when he withheld ‘To Immagination’ from publication, Bloomfield is evidently determined to set limits to his verse, to avoid using landscape description as a pretext to worship his own mind. Wordsworth was accused of puerility and egotism for doing so; a poet from the laboring classes was likely to attract even more damaging criticism of his pretensions.

‘Shooter’s Hill’ was written in spring 1803 when Bloomfield went on a walking excursion to escape from the stress that a new job in the busy Seal Office was causing him. This poem was also Wordsworthian in theme: the hill walk in the country is an escape from physically and mentally destructive city life:

To hide me from the public eye,
To keep the throne of Reason clear,
Amidst fresh air to breathe or die,
I took my staff and wander’d here:
Suppressing every sigh that heaves,
And coveting no wealth but thee,
I nestle in the honied leaves,
And hug my stolen liberty.

The hilltop view gives a sense of freedom and power, as in Dyer’s ‘Grongar Hill’ (1726) and the more recent ‘Lewesdon Hill’ (1788) by William Crowe:

O’er eastward uplands, gay or rude,
Along to Erith’s ivied spire,
I start, with strength and hope renew’d,
And cherish life’s rekindling fire.
Now measure vales with straining eyes,
Now trace the church-yard’s humble names;
Or, climb brown heaths, abrupt that rise,
And overlook the winding Thames.

But the simplicity and naivety of the confessional verse that follows, and the intimation of divinity in ‘the meanest flower that blows’, is from Lyrical Ballads:

I love to mark the flow’ret’s eye,
To rest where pebbles form my bed,
Where shapes and colours scatter’d lie,
In varying millions round my head.
The soul rejoices when alone,
And feels her glorious empire free;
Sees God in every shining stone,
And revels in variety.

But again, Bloomfield recoils from identifying this insight with his own imaginative self, asserting instead that it is not for him to become the Bard of his native land:

Of Cambrian mountains still I dream,
And mouldering vestiges of war;
By time-worn cliff or classic stream
Would rove,—but Prudence holds a bar.
Come then, O Health! I’ll strive to bound
My wishes to this airy stand;
’Tis not for me to trace around
The wonders of my native land.

He ends by rejecting the vanity involved in wishing that his work will make him revered by future generations, but is this merely to accede to, rather than protest against, or attempt to transcend, a comparative confinement of view that is forced upon him by a social status that puts the freedom to travel, and the confidence to speak, out of reach? Does Bloomfield too easily reconcile himself, in the name of virtue, to deference? Blake, another London artisan, might have thought so. If he did, it is nevertheless true that ‘Shooter’s Hill’ and ‘Barnham Water’, in their astute deployment of the language of empowerment that Wordsworth derived from topographical verse, put on display both his desire to achieve and difficulty in achieving a voice of personal and national authority. Self-assertive and self-denying by turns, they reveal his attraction to and refusal of ‘the internalization of the quest romance’ and in so doing they are symptomatic of the struggle of labouring-class poets to escape the subjects—rural life and labour—on which they were expected (and were themselves accustomed) to write.

‘To My Old Oak Table’, begun in September and finished in December 1803, was more successful in maintaining a voice of personal authority than the topographical poems. The device of prosopopeia—speaking to an inanimate object—is justified by the symbolism of the table as being both a writing desk and a table for dining and household work. It places Bloomfield’s poetry, including this very poem, at the heart of family life, giving it the function of witnessing the joys and anxieties experienced over a span of years. Bloomfield gains confidence from this location, speaking frankly of poverty and illness, and their effect upon his mind and body, than ever before:

Thick fell the gathering terrors of Distress;
Anxiety, and Griefs without a name,
Had made their dreadful inroads on my frame;
The creeping Dropsy, cold as cold could be,
Unnerv’d my arm, and bow’d my head to thee.

Writing of himself writing in and through this domestic setting, he presents himself as a Romantic poet more confidently than he had at Shooter’s Hill and Barnham Water:

I pour’d the torrent of my feelings forth;
Conscious of truth in Nature’s humble track,
And wrote ‘The Farmer’s Boy’ upon thy back!

Here Bloomfield does not undercut his portrait of himself as inspired: he derives his verse from a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings that is enabled by the act of writing upon a table that has been a stable presence in his domestic life for years. It allows him to take pride in the power of his poetry to bring things to life, and to preserve them from harm:

Enough, old friend:—thou’rt mine; and shalt partake,
While I have pen to write, or tongue to speak,
Whatever fortune deals me

This assertion of friendship is implicitly a self-vindication as a father and as a man. It is notable that the egotism of this, and the self-absorbed history of feeling growing from ordinary life that prepares for it, are achieved in the pentameter couplets he had used in The Farmer’s Boy. Bloomfield remained a master of the couplet form, here adapting it to sustain his strongest meditation on himself—thereby Romanticising an eighteenth-century form.

Contrasting with the three first-person poems are three rural tales: ‘The Broken Crutch’, ‘The Horkey, and ‘Abner and the Widow Jones, a Familiar Ballad’. The last of these dates from August 1804, when Bloomfield notes that he was writing ‘a Ballad to be calld “the Ploughman,” in that stile in which I am best calculated to succeed’ (Letter 135). ‘That stile’ was comic and sentimental, in plain diction. The story concerns a middle-aged courtship and ends with a wedding. The ploughman gets the girl second time round, and the happy occasion is blessed when the farmer gives him his favourite old plough-horse, thus saving it from being killed for dog-meat. It’s a wish-fulfilment fantasy in which anxiety, poverty and social hierarchy are overcome: the rich help the poor and all ends happily. Bloomfield would write many tales of this kind, depicting villages as communities in which human need trumps financial self-interest and social division—moral economies. In ‘The Broken Crutch’ he even plays with the possibility of violence on the part of the labourers if their social superiors flagrantly infringe the traditional moral standards assumed to bind everyone in the community. But the spectre is raised only to be banished, as it turns out that the squire does not intend to seduce and abandon, but rather to marry, the lame labourer’s daughter. If these stories are sentimental, they are not merely fantastical. Bloomfield’s tales accord with Cobbett’s Rural Rides and Clare’s ‘Lament of Swordy Well’: each writer’s idealisation of the past as a better, kindlier place was rooted in experience of older ways of living being rapidly destroyed by the capitalisation of agriculture and resultant polarisation of social relations. [1] 

Bloomfield suggests as much in ‘The Horkey’, his ballad about the festival held at harvest home, held at the squire’s and farmers’ expense, in which the labourers were encouraged, for one day a year, to eat, drink and party to excess. ‘These customs’, he wrote, ‘are going fast out of use; which is one great reason for my trying to tell the rising race of mankind that such were the customs when I was a boy’. Hone’s Everyday Book attempted a similar commemorative task, and proved very popular; Clare, inspired by Bloomfield, went on to celebrate the autumn festival of ‘St Martin’s Eve’. Clare’s poem was in one respect less authentic than Bloomfield’s: it did not, like ‘The Horkey’, use dialect words—a sign of Bloomfield’s taking further than before the Wordsworthian commitment to rural speech as a proper language for poetry. Terms such as ‘hake’, ‘sitch a mort’ and ‘cop’t’ required glossing in the notes: slang such as ‘by gom’ also featured, as did phonetically spelt corruptions like ‘arter’. This was highly unusual in polite verse printed in books, and relatively rare even in broadside ballads sold on the street: it aligned Bloomfield’s poetry with gossip, tale-telling and song-singing and with the tipsy tattler in the alehouse—a Burnsian turn that resonated differently in England, where a folk poet was not, as in Scotland, viewed as a revivalist of the national language against colonisation by southern English. The Critical Review was not alone in implying that such language was too vulgar for poetry—a complaint that Francis Jeffrey had made about Lyrical Ballads in 1802, although that collection included no labouring-class slang or Somerset dialect.

The volume was completed by ‘Mary’s Evening Sigh’, a slight lyric first published in the Monthly Mirror in September 1802, by a comic poem on visiting Ranelagh Gardens, by a hunting song, and by the revised ‘Good Tidings’ which, in this context, took on new resonance because, like ‘To My Old Oak Table’, and the Dedication, it dwelt on illness and disability in Bloomfield’s own family. Bloomfield’s son Charles was lame, and in dedicating the volume to him he is both heartfelt and intimate to an unusual degree for a public format: ‘What a lasting, what an unspeakable satisfaction would it be to know that the Ballads, the Plowman Stories, and the “Broken Crutch” of your father would eventually contribute to lighten your steps to manhood, and make your own crutch, through life, rather a memorial of affection, than an object of sorrow’. The comic hero of ‘The Broken Crutch’ is helped by his brother to protect his daughter. The poems, that is, were Bloomfield’s paternalism in words, a fatherly legacy representing all he could do to lighten the burden of disability. The reader, at his point, feels as if intruding on a private, family affair: Bloomfield here presents himself and his family vulnerable, naked, an utter contrast to the framing of his poems and his life by patrons’ words in The Farmer’s Boy and Rural Tales.

Publication

Wild Flowers was published in March 1806 by Vernor, Hood and their new partner Sharpe, in alliance with Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme. Bloomfield presented a copy to the Whig leader Charles James Fox, as Wordsworth had Lyrical Ballads, Fox having admired Rural Tales (Letter 177). On 11 March another Whig, the Earl of Buchan, a patron of poets and painters, expressed his admiration, not directly to Bloomfield but to the booksellers Longmans. His suggestion was that he would help the sale of a second edition by prefacing it with a letter that Bloomfield had written to him in 1802 and with his own anecdotes about the poet (Letter 178). The letter (Letter 75) was confessional—Bloomfield apologized in it for having been moved to tears by his own recitation of his verse. Longmans referred Buchan’s suggestion to Bloomfield who in turn sent it to Lofft, seeking advice. Lofft replied that it was a handsome, if slightly vain, tribute and that to refuse to use it as the preface to the second edition would leave Bloomfield open to imputations of arrogance and ingratitude.

I trust I have as high & as free a spirit as any man; yet, were Earl Buchan to wish to prefix to anything of mine a testimony such as he is desirous of prefixing to your poems, he must write very differently from anything I have seen of his before I should refuse it.

The decision of course rests with you. But I do not think him a man whose talents and virtues & tender of goodwill are of that rate which can be slighted without injury to oneself & one’s own feelings.

(Letter 188, June 1806)

Nevertheless, Bloomfield did decline to include it, giving Buchan an explanation that is significant in that it reveals his quiet determination to speak directly to the reader without gentlemanly packaging. He would no longer be patronised, however well meaning the patron:

It will be observed that the Dedication to my Boy (who is eight years old this day) contains more meaning than is there exprest. I have with great truth spoken there of a ‘peculiar delicacy’, and I since feel it more than I did at that time. To adopt your plan, great and honourable as it is, would involve consequences that I cannot explain. One of the most difficult tasks that arises from my extraordinary situation, for such perhaps with great truth I may call it, is so to act as not to wound the feelings of my good and voluntary friends, nor to violate my own. The Letter I long ago addrest to your Lordship is such perhaps as I ought not to be ashamed of, and such that no person would believe me did I pretend to it. But though I feel the intended honour, I feel too, other sensations that many perhaps could suppress: I feel that it would be a violation of my notions of delicacy to print it now. My object has been to abide by the most simple methods of acquiring reputation, the standing alone, as far as my abilities go, and as far as it can be done in justice to my friends. Thus it has happened that of the many letters which I have had from his Grace the Duke of Grafton, Sir C Bunbury &c, one from the Duke of York, and one from that most great, and most lamented man, Mr Fox, that none of them have been made use of, though, as well as those from your Lordship of a nature highly to be prized, they would have made a proud and conspicuous figure attach’d to any one of my publications. I know not which most to admire, your Lordships candour in stating your opinion of my poems, or your long remembrance of one so distant, and so much longer silent than your kind letters formerly would fairly warrant.

(Letter 191, 15 September 1806)

Sales were a reason for Bloomfield’s feeling able to resist incorporating the recommendations of the great and good. He was able to tell Buchan ‘A second edition of five thousand copies of “Wild Flowers”, is just now publishing’, meaning a first edition of that number was already close to selling out. Reviews were another reason: the consensus of the journals was that the collection proved Bloomfield’s consistency: he was no one-hit-wonder but a poet in command of his craft. Most praised ‘Good Tidings’; The Monthly Magazine especially admired the tales: ‘the genius and simplicity which marked the features of his first productions are equally observable in the poetry of the present volume. The Tale of the Broken Crutch, and the poem To my old Oak Table, are among the best of the local poetry mentioned in the title’ (24 Part 2 (1807), 629). The Monthly Mirror singled out the new emphasis on the poet himself, and his talent for comedy: ‘the humour with which it is intermixed, shews the poet under new circumstances, and the diffidence of his own abilities, perceivable in his former productions, is not so visible in the volume before us, which evinces an extraordinary portion of mental vigour and invention; and we can confidently predict, that so long as Mr. Bloomfield adheres to the present species of poetry, he need be under no apprehensions for the success of a “third,” or fourth “attempt”’ (21 (1806), 242–46). The Critical Review was more—critical—finding the prosopopeia of ‘To My Old Oak Table’ too extended to be credible and, echoing common criticisms of Wordsworth, judging the tales too commonplace and prosaic to be poetry:

There is a nerveless imbecility of conception which pervades the whole volume, a mediocrity of spirit which occasionally reaches a pretty thought, but never ventures to one that is bold or energetic. Without enthusiasm what is poetry? It is prose, not run mad, but unworthily held in the fetters of rhyme. The frenzy of inspiration, whether truly or falsely poetical, may for the peace and good order of the king’s English, be entrusted to the manacles of verse; but wherefore should trite thoughts and poor innocent expressions, guiltless of all fire and fury, be abridged of their natural liberty, and ‘deprosed’ into rhyme? To versify such thoughts is like consigning a palsied patient to a keeper and a strait waistcoat.

(3rd series, 8 (1806), 123–27 (p. 127))

This review did not damage sales: new editions were issued in 1809 by Vernor, Hood and Sharpe, and in 1812 by a combination of Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, B. & R. Crosby & Co., J. Walker; and Darton, Harvey, & Co. The booksellers shared half the copyright; Bloomfield kept the other half. In 1816 a further edition was released in which Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown were joined by Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, by Darton, Harvey, & Co.; and by Walker and Edwards. The last lifetime edition was that of 1819: Walker and Edwards were superseded by J. Booker; G. Cowie & Co.; and Edwards and Knibb. The collection was still selling in the 1820s and a posthumous edition, negotiated by Bloomfield’s daughter Hannah, appeared in 1826. It was published, collected with The Farmer’s Boy and Rural Tales, many times in the 1830s and 1840s after copyright lapsed. All of the poems in Wild Flowers, with the exception of Good Tidings, which was included in a separate volume with The Farmer’s Boy, were reprinted in the second volume of the Stereotype edition (1809).



DEDICATION.

to

MY ONLY Son.

My Dear Boy,

In thus addressing myself to you, and in expressing my regard for your person, my anxiety for your health, and my devotion to your welfare, I enjoy an advantage over those dedicators who indulge in adulation;—I shall at least be believed.

Should you arrive at that period when reason shall be mature, and affection or curiosity induce you to look back on your father’s poetical progress through life, you may conclude that he had many to boast as friends, whose names, in a dedication, would have honoured both him and his children; but you must also reflect, that to particularize such friends was a point of peculiar delicacy. The earliest patron of my unprotected strains has the warm thanks which are his due, for the introduction of blessings which have been diffused through our whole family, and nothing will ever change this sentiment. But amidst a general feeling of gratitude, which those who know me will never dispute, I feel for you, Charles, what none but parents can conceive; and on your account, my dear boy, there can be no harm in telling the world that I hope these ‘Wild Flowers’ will be productive of sweets of the worldly kind; for your unfortunate lameness (should it never be removed) may preclude you from the means of procuring comforts and advantages which might otherwise have fallen to your share.

What a lasting, what an unspeakable satisfaction would it be to know that the Ballads, the Plowman Stories, and the ‘Broken Crutch’ of your father would eventually contribute to lighten your steps to manhood, and make your own crutch, through life, rather a memorial of affection, than an object of sorrow.

With a parent’s feelings, and a parent’s cares and hopes,

I am, Charles, yours,

R.B.



PREFACE

A man of the first eminence, in whose day (fortunately perhaps for me) I was not destined to appear before the public, or to abide the Herculean crab-tree of his criticism, Dr. Johnson, has said, in his preface to Shakspeare, that— ‘Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.’ My representations of nature, whatever may be said of their justness, are not general, unless we admit, what I suspect to be the case, that nature in a village is very much like nature every where else. It will be observed that all my pictures are from humble life, and most of my heroines servant maids. Such I would have them: being fully persuaded that, in no other way would my endeavours, either to please or to instruct, have an equal chance of success.

The path I have thus taken, from necessity, as well as from choice, is well understood and approved by hundreds, who are capable of ranging in the higher walks of literature.—But with due deference to their superior claim, I confess, that no recompense has been half so grateful or half so agreeable to me as female approbation. To be readily and generally understood, to have my simple Tales almost instinctively relished by those who have so decided an influence over the lives, hearts, and manners of us all, is the utmost stretch of my ambition.

I here venture, before the public eye, a selection from the various pieces which have been the source of much pleasure, and the solace of my leisure hours during the last four years, and since the publication of the ‘Rural Tales.’ Perhaps, in some of them, more of mirth is intermingled than many who know me would expect, or than the severe will be inclined to approve. But surely what I can say, or can be expected to say, on subjects of country life, would gain little by the seriousness of a preacher, or by exhibiting fallacious representations of what has long been termed Rural Innocence.

The Poem of ‘Good Tidings’ is partially known to the world, but, as it was originally intended to assume its present appearance and size, I have gladly availed myself of an endeavour to improve it; and, from its present extended circulation, I trust it will be new to thousands.

I anticipate some approbation from such readers as have been pleased with the ‘Rural Tales;’ yet, though I will not falsify my own feelings by assuming a diffidence which I do not conceive to be either manly or becoming, the conviction that some reputation is hazarded in ‘a third attempt,’ is impressed deeply on my mind.

With such sentiments, and with a lively sense of the high honour, and a hope of the bright recompence, of applause from the good, when heightened by the self-approving voice of my own conscience, I commit the book to its fate.

ROBERT BLOOMFIELD.

Notes

[1] See Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London, 1973). BACK

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