356. (Charles Baudelaire)

Here is the first stanza of “Obsession,” from Aaron Poochigian’s wonderful new translation of Baudelaire:

Vast woods, you scare me like cathedrals. Winds

blow through you like an organ. Our cursed hearts (endless

chambers of mourning where the last gasp sounds)

resonate with your solemn De Profundis.

And here is the translation by Roy Campbell and, following it, by William Aggeler:

You forests, like cathedrals, are my dread:
You roar like organs. Our curst hearts, like cells
Where death forever rattles on the bed,
Echo your de Profundis as it swells.

Great woods, you frighten me like cathedrals;
You roar like the organ; and in our cursed hearts,
Rooms of endless mourning where old death-rattles sound,
Respond the echoes of your De profundis.

And here, in prose, Keith Waldrop:

Forests, you frighten me, as do cathedrals; you moan like an organ; and in our cursed hearts—chambers of eternal mourning where death rattles—echoes respond from your De Profundis.

And the original:

Grands bois, vous m’effrayez comme des cathédrales;
Vous hurlez comme l’orgue; et dans nos coeurs maudits,
Chambres d’éternel deuil où vibrent de vieux râles,
Répondent les échos de vos De profundis.

Translation is an art of selecting losses for the sake of narrow victories. Campbell seeks to preserve full rhymes according to Baudelaire’s scheme, but at the cost of the unnatural locution, “are my dread,” which weakens the force of the line, and with the addition of “on the bed,” filling out the image, but working against Baudelaire’s compression of metaphors. More successful, “like cells” and “echo your De Profundis as it swells,” with the latter line especially managing concision, directness, force, and a suggestion of the heart swelling, along with the verses of De Profundis.

William Aggeler preserves Baudelaire’s lines, recognizing that Baudelaire preserves the integrity of clauses and phrases within each line, so that the line-endings compound existing punctuation; this is Baudelaire aspiring to a Racinian rhetoric. But that effect in Baudelaire is not only syntactical, gaining power also from the lines ending on rhymes, which Aggeler cannot recreate. Perhaps in an effort to stay close to the phrasing of the French, there is the odd inclusion of an article, “the,” before “organ”; in English, it risks suggesting a sexual euphemism and at least raises a question, “which”?  Then there is the matter of diction: “Great” in the first line is a pastiche of loft, and “rooms” feels too low a descent to the mundane (“the mourning room”? the waiting room?). Finally, to follow Baudelaire’s language in the last line, there is a forced inversion of “Respond.”

 Waldrop sacrifices lineation and rhyme entirely, seeking to serve the sense rather than the syntax or form; but why drop “Grands”? And I find the sense of Baudelaire’s final line, when translated, accurately, into “responds,” to seem in spirit inaccurate: too flat, too lifeless, or too lacking in color.

T.S. Eliot told everyone what is true: that Baudelaire owes a lot to Racine in his rhetoric and self-dramatization. But that maybe has set a lot of Baudelaire’s translators onto the path of attempting, in the process of translating Baudelaire, to discover a English pitched with a poise and polish that is not native to the language. Racine’s strict diction, his decorum, and his gelid lines, though cold and constrained are cold with passion and constrained by the intensity of the emotional drama to which he subjects his characters; too often, I think, translators of Baudelaire have mistakenly aspired to a verse that is lucid in appearance, rather than attending chiefly to what appears in the verse; and the attempt to register decorum and classical rhetoric seems priggish and artificial; it may be that Baudelaire’s own prizing of the artifice has liberated them in this pursuit. But more often than not, such translations have left me cold (when Lowell tried to do an end-around, he arrived where he often did, at his own voice, re-doing Baudelaire in his image).

With Aaron Poochigian’s translation, I experience something else: he seems interested not in the appearance of a lucid style, but in clearly communicating what Baudelaire so vividly sees; he recognizes, I think, that the Classical tradition in English cannot be thought to owe to the 17th century, but begins instead in Ben Jonson and evolves into Dryden’s brusque humor—the Dryden of the epilogues. A Classicism of the Inn, rather than the Salon (Eliot might have wished for the latter, disparaging the packed train car to Swansea for a football match) . Rather than make English sound French, Poochigian trusts that if he can help us see what Baudelaire sees, as vividly as possible, the Frenchness will take care of itself; and what’s more he recognizes that to help us see what Baudelaire sees, he will have to help us hear some of what Baudelaire sounds like. English has enough of a tradition of near-rhymes and off-rhymes for those to do the trick, tickle and tug on the ear; and the boldest of Poochigian’s decisions in the stanza I’ve quoted, to enjamb heavily, serves him well; it grants him the rhymes and also permits a direct syntactical expression that respects the settled simplicity, the calm assurance, of Baudelaire’s utterance.

The liberties he takes help me see: “Winds” is an addition that gives him the off-rhyme with “sounds,” but it also teases out the air in “hurlez,” a connotation that is perhaps less present in “roar.” By positioning “Winds” at the end of a line, the page space is made to carry emblematic significance; we might recall Wordsworth clinging to the cliff. When he does the same with “endless,” the effect is the same, the blank page stretching out, and the parentheses is perfectly judged, serving as a chamber on the page, and also doing justice to Baudelaire’s habit of embedding metaphors, so that the internal life and external spaces are interposed but also self-sufficient. Perhaps the boldest choice is the displacement of “endless” so that it describes the chambers rather than the “mourning,” but this respects, I think, the same trick of Baudelaire’s metaphorical imagination: the chambers are allowed to be endless because they are not only the site of mourning, but are, in their being, the very mourning of the heart. “Endless” chambers gives spatial dimension to what is temporal in the original, but to extend space in this metaphor is to also extend time, and acknowledges what is true in Baudelaire: as internal and external exist within one another, a series of stacking dolls, so the temporal and spatial can dissolved, a description of one suddenly turning it an account of the other. “Resonate” is overused as a metaphor these days, when one speaks of hearing something that “resonates with my experience,” or when something resonates with significance, so as to deprive the word itself of significance. But here, the word is used in its old sturdy sense of “re-sound,” albeit in a metaphor where the sounding-out is part of a figure for the innermost experience of the heart. It is a risk worth taking, because the word is made itself in English, and does more than “respond” to register the experience of hearing and sounding. “Solemn” gives the line its metrical heft, but so might have some phrase about echoes; but the echoes are implied by resonate, and Poochigian assumes, rightly, that he has clearly enough foregrounded the physical presence of cathedral and forest to establish that heart as, like either, an echoing space. Perhaps because he does not attempt to coordinate the cathedral, forest, mourning chambers, and heart within as sinuous a syntax as Baudelaire (and this perhaps because English syntax, however flexible Milton showed it could be, is not prone to inversion as French), the parallelism between the four is clearer. “Solemn” is redundant, since it is difficult to imagine a jaunty De Profundis, but this is perhaps a concession to readers who might not hear (as I do not) the De Profundis being sung; at any rate, if it is redundant, it is not the only choice, and solemn is not sorrowful or pained or desperate, and gives an air of decorum to the mourning chambers (no keening there).

But I was won over to Poochigian most in his handling of two aspects of Baudelaire’s verse that I have long struggled to understand, let alone appreciate. One, cats; the second, jewelry, hair and perfume.

Here is the first stanza of “Le Chat,” the fifty-first poem in the collection, in the original:

Dans ma cervelle se promène,
Ainsi qu’en son appartement,
Un beau chat, fort, doux et charmant.
Quand il miaule, on l’entend à peine,

William Aggeler:

In my brain there walks about,
As though he were in his own home,
A lovely cat, strong, sweet, charming.
When he mews, one scarcely hears him,

Roy Campbell:

A fine strong gentle cat is prowling
As in his bedroom, in my brain;
So soft his voice, so smooth its strain,
That you can scarcely hear him miowling.

Keith Waldrop:

In my brain, as in his quarters, a beautiful cat—strong, gentle, charming—moves about.  When he meows, it’s barely audible.

Aaron Poochigian:

A strong, sweet, handsome and glamorous

cat is strolling inside of me

as if I were his property.

You scarcely hear when he meows;

What Poochigian does here is fantastic: moving the adjectives to the front, he gives them a pride of place, as they must have; in English translation, Baudelaire’s are not especially lively adjectives, and English adjectives are already the weakest part of speech. Reading Baudelaire, I persistently suspect that his adjectives are doing work that I cannot see, and perhaps that is why so many translations seem not just buttoned-up but lacking in color. With the word “glamorous,” Poochigian strays from the original to add color to the English, and in so doing honors the poet who honored Delacroix as a great colorist. Baudelaire, throughout Poochigian’s translations, becomes a great colorist, too. It makes sense to retain, as Waldrop and Aggeler do, the shock of “brain,” but I find “cat is strolling inside of me” more shocking still; it collapses more completely the interior/exterior distinction, the nonchalance of “strolling” is extended into the nonchalance of “inside of me,” and the effect is deadpan, all the more surprising, and all the more needed since Poochigian surrendered the structured joke of Baudelaire’s original where the cat is revealed only in the third line, after the teased suspense of “in my brain there walks about” that opens the poem. But also, by not attempting to mimic that suspense and delay, Poochigian does not need to pull at English syntax as Aggeler does with the forced “there,” with the ensuing line also falling prey to the sing-song cadence of a ditty: “In my brain, there walks about | A little dum-dum-dum-da-pout.” Campbell avoids that, but the intrusion of the clause, “as in his bedroom” doesn’t build suspense before the revelation of “in my brain,” but instead slackens the joke, as it does not in the French where that clause occupies its own line (the eyes reading drift through the line, unconsciously, to “in my brain” when it is on the same line, as in Campbell’s). Aggeler keeps, “as though he were in his own home,” but it is not “chez lui,” and Baudelaire’s French affords the thought that the cat is a cat-about-town with a luxury unit of his own (as a cat ought to have). Poochigian gets to the nub: the cat in his brain has taken possession of him, but not taken possession with any violence or claim; he just moves as if the man were the property of the feline. We can hear in the cadence of Poochigian’s line a mix of exasperation, befuddlement, and surrender.  Even in the concision of the last line, where Poochigian avoids the un-English “one” of Aggeler, and the padded auxiliary “can” of Campbell, and the weakened verbs of Waldrop’s more exact translation, the effect is to make the experience and image more immediate; “You scarcely hear” brings us into the present with the cat.

This immediacy and color is, I imagine, especially important in the Baudelaire poems about women’s hair, perfume, and jewelry, but these have always been for me the poems that make me wonder if I am too culturally distant from Baudelaire’s world—a world that was inhabited also by Gustave Moreau with his garish paintings. Here are two stanzas from the middle of “La Chevelure,” in the original:

Je plongerai ma tête amoureuse d’ivresse
Dans ce noir océan où l’autre est enfermé;
Et mon esprit subtil que le roulis caresse
Saura vous retrouver, ô féconde paresse,
Infinis bercements du loisir embaumé!

Cheveux bleus, pavillon de ténèbres tendues
Vous me rendez l’azur du ciel immense et rond;
Sur les bords duvetés de vos mèches tordues
Je m’enivre ardemment des senteurs confondues
De l’huile de coco, du musc et du goudron.

Here is the translation by Aggeler:

I shall bury my head enamored with rapture
In this black sea where the other is imprisoned;
And my subtle spirit caressed by the rolling
Will find you once again, O fruitful indolence,
Endless lulling of sweet-scented leisure!

Blue-black hair, pavilion hung with shadows,
You give back to me the blue of the vast round sky;
In the downy edges of your curling tresses
I ardently get drunk with the mingled odors
Of oil of coconut, of musk and tar.

And Campbell:

I’ll plunge my head in it, half drunk with pleasure —
In this black ocean that engulfs her form.
My soul, caressed with wavelets there may measure
Infinite rocking in embalmed leisure,
Creative idleness that fears no storm!

Blue tresses, like a shadow-stretching tent,
You shed the blue of heavens round and far.
Along its downy fringes as I went
I reeled half-drunken to confuse the scent
Of oil of coconuts, with musk and tar.

And Waldrop:

I will plunge by head, passionately drunken, into this dark ocean imprisoning the other—and my discerning mind, caressed by sea surge, will find you again. O fecund indolence! Infinite lull of balmy playtime!

Livid hair, pavilion of tense shadow, you give me the blue sky, immense and round. At the downy margins of your twisted locks I frolic ardently in mixed scents of coconut oil, musk, and tar.

Finally, Poochigian:

I’ll dunk my lust-besotted head in this

dark sea where what I want is kept in prison.

My subtle soul that rolls in its caress

will rediscover you, ripe languidness,

O endless rest, ambrosial intermission.

Indigo tresses, you, O shadow tent,

lend me an ever-azure, open sky.

I’ll gladly sink into the mingled scent

the little wisps along your neck ferment—

cocoa oil, musk, and tar in harmony.

In these stanzas, Baudelaire ecstatically conflates and confuses senses, space, scale, and the spiritual and the physical. Aggeler’s path, adhering to the syntax and lineation of the original, nonetheless makes small changes (“vast round sky”) that tighten what would be flabby or stilted if too exactly carried over (Campbell’s “heavens round and far”); Waldrop is close to the original, but “fecund” in English has little sexual about it, and little sensual (why not “fertile”?) and “sea surge” is far more technical a term than “roulis,” with a specificity that is not warranted by the reverie. Then there is the question of what the soul is doing in that first stanza. Aggeler has “will find you once again,” and Waldrop “will find you again” for “retrouver”; Campbell has the dull “measure,” presumably for rhyme. The final line poses perhaps the greatest challenge: “Endless lulling in sweet-smelling leisure” is a transliteration; Campbell’s “infinite rocking” gives a stronger image, a cradle in the infinite (elsewhere important to Baudelaire, via Pascal), but “embalmed leisure,” though it hints at necrophilia, suitably, takes away the sweet smell; a trade-off, I suppose. Waldrop acknowledges that “leisure” in English has too many odd connotations (“leisure suit”; “sports and leisure”) and gives us the sprightly “playtime,” but “playtime” has none of the abstract breadth of “leisure,” and pulls the line to childhood; in the original, infancy is invoked in “bercements;” Waldrop has made that the drugged “lull” instead, but rather than recover infancy with “playtime,” he gives us another stage of life, one far more resistant to coddling, nurturing, and one further removed from the infancy that follows from fertility.

Poochigian’s “Subtle soul that rolls in its caress” (and I’ve not noted the range of translations for “esprit”: Aggeler’s “spirit,” Cambpell’s “soul,” and Waldrop’s conspicuous and ineffectual “mind”) gets a nice internal rhyme that rolls through the line, squares the attention on the “soul” that, more than “spirit,” is at home in an English Christian lexicon describing individual salvation, and most effectively, gets an active verb: “that rolls.” He achieves concision by trusting that we will know the antecedent of “its,” but the effect is to force us to know the antecedent, to insist on the unity and development of the imagery, since the “dark sea” was established in the earlier line. As in the earlier translations, here Poochogian hazards an enjambment, and the effect is to propel the next line with a strong active “will” (forcefully not “shall”), insisting on the willfulness of the poet in this willingly receptive, passive experience of surrender. “Rediscover” is surprisingly obvious, and “discover” is suitably charged with excitement, with the returning novelty of lust and desire; “ripe” has enough connotations of fertility, fecundity, and sexuality, but it is a common adjective, as fecund is not, so that the abstraction of “languidness” is made to feel concrete—a feeling accentuated by the decision to avoid the noun form “languor,” and instead to add a suffix that ties the common adjective (again, Poochigian’s Baudelaire speaks plainly), “languid,” to a noun form. Who speaks about “languor”? Poochigian is determined to write poetry, rather than poesy. Then, rendering the spirit rather than the sense, Poochigian translates the final line with a bold dismissal of the linking preposition, “of” (“de”), which holds together the two parts of the clause, and risks clotting English with a burden of abstraction that it cannot sustain. It would require a phrase of the form, “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.” Poochigian chooses instead to preserve the intensity of each part, trusting that the work ambiguous relationship established by “of” can be established also by apposition: “O endless rest, ambrosial intermission”  dispenses with the “bercements” and nursery rocking, but it gives us a new tension, between “endless” and “intermission”: the experience is a break that feels endless, but that has limits (like her hair), and adjectivally, the abstraction of “endless” is countered by the wonderful “ambrosial,” which doubles down on ripeness, as well as scent, and lets “endless rest” do the work of suggesting death. “Intermission” gets at what leisure is, in so far as it is a break, but it also carries the suggestion, found elsewhere in Baudelaire, that the rest of life is acted upon a stage; this is an intermission for the actors, as well as the audience.

 More than anything else, the translation needs to sound erotically charged, and to achieve this effect, Poochigian does what no other translator does: transposes the verb in the second stanza into the future tense, and this after removing the second-person and transforming the first verb, “lend me,” to an imperative. In both cases, the translation places a stress on the poet’s will; even if this scene is a loss of self, it is a willful loss of self, and the fantasy is consciously the poet’s own. But even as the future tense casts the poem as fantasy, it also registers the violence: Baudelaire has no interest in who she is, but insists on making something of her hair, her smell, her touch. This is done by him as much as it is done to him. And yet, to pull in another direction still, the word “gladly” implies both the excitement as well as a concession, as if he was asked to do this. We cannot be sure of who is demanding what, of who is deriving what pleasure from this situation; self and other dissolve here The “other” of course is what Poochigian translates as “what I want” in the first of the stanzas, as clear an example as any of his going through the language to communicate the poem’s insatiable desire, its almost child-like appetite. “What I want,” the object of desire, is always other, and the brutally direct formulation recognizes that exteriority, that graspable alterity that Baudelaire wants to find.


But the best of this translation is the lines: “I’ll gladly sink into the mingled scent |the little wisps along your neck ferment—” The fullness of the rhyme feels like a satisfied closure as Baudelaire imagines his consummated olfactory bliss, and the lines embody what is so effective about Poochigian’s approach: to help us see along with Baudelaire, so that the focus is not on the mingled scent (impossible to convey) but on “the little wisps along your neck,” so precise in its physicality, its bodily presence, and its detail; we graze the nape along with Baudelaire; and in putting it this way, Poochigian affords himself another active verb: the scent is fermented by the wisps, so that ferment means exude and also entails intoxication. To round out the stanza, Poochigian adds “in harmony,” not only a flourish for rhyme and sound, but a furthering of synesthetic imagination.

Poochigian doesn’t want to make Baudelaire out to be a stylist. He wants Baudelaire to be uniquely alive to experience, and to communicate that in the only way he can—in measured verse and rhyme, a means of giving order, compression, and balance to the abyss of desire and despair, inwardness and concrete reality, self and other, inertia and change, stasis and transport, and activity and passivity into which he stares. 

Here is Baudelaire’s “Spleen” (“J’ai plus de souvenirs”):

Rien n’égale en longueur les boiteuses journées,
Quand sous les lourds flocons des neigeuses années
L’ennui, fruit de la morne incuriosité,
Prend les proportions de l’immortalité.
— Désormais tu n’es plus, ô matière vivante!
Qu’un granit entouré d’une vague épouvante,
Assoupi dans le fond d’un Sahara brumeux;
Un vieux sphinx ignoré du monde insoucieux,
Oublié sur la carte, et dont l’humeur farouche
Ne chante qu’aux rayons du soleil qui se couche.

And here is Poochigian’s translation:

Nothing can move more slowly than the limping hours

when, under the oppressive drifts of snowy years,

ennui, the fruit of melancholy lethargy,

takes on the magnitude of immortality.

From now on, living matter, you are nothing more

than granite that, fenced in by enigmatic fear,

is sleeping in a dim Saharan desertscape,

or a primeval sphinx that, stricken from the map,

lost to the careless world, with an indignant frown

sings only in the long light of the setting sun.

Here, for contrast, I offer a translation by an excellent poet whose sense for manner and mannerism, as well as insidious evil, might be thought to make him a good match for Baudelaire. Anthony Hecht’s translation of the same lines:

Nothing can equal those days for endlessness

When in the winter’s blizzardy caress

Indifference expanding to Ennui

Takes on the feel of Immortality.

O living matter, henceforth you’re no more

Than a cold stone encompassed by vague fear,

And by the desert, and the mist and sun;

An ancient Sphinx ignored by everyone,

Left off the map, whose bitter irony

Is to sing as the sun sets in that dry sea.

And here Roy Campbell:

Nothing can match those limping days for length
Where under snows of years, grown vast in strength,
Boredom (of listlessness the pale abortion)
Of immortality takes the proportion!
— From henceforth, living matter, you are nought
But stone surrounded by a dreadful thought:
Lost in some dim Sahara, an old Sphinx,
Of whom the world we live in never thinks.
Lost on the map, it is its surly way
Only to sing in sunset’s fading ray.

All three translators take enormous liberties; as always there are costs. I like Campbell’s parenthetical, “of listlessness the pale abortion,” boldly responding to the procreative sense of “fruit” in the original; Hecht’s “And by the desert, and the mist and sun” does not name the desert, but stretches out in a monotonous waste, each “and” adding weight, and the list extending from “vague fear,” so that the physical and emotional are, characteristically of Baudelaire, on the same figurative plane. But Hecht is too dulled by boredom; “the feel of Immortality” feels nothing and “that dry sea,” though it nods to other poems by Baudelaire, adds nothing to this one; “Indifference expanding to Ennui” too neatly identifies not just the origin but the substance of Ennui. Campbell’s first four lines are clotted, “grown vast in strength” confusing because the years themselves are represented as having grown over time, “strength” and “vast” pulling uncooperatively in different directions, and “strength” unsure of whether it pertains to a blizzard or time (how could years grow strong?), and the whole line without the long singing stretch of Baudelaire’s mournful alexandrine; “takes the proportion” is not only a weak dislocation of syntax, but muddles what is already, in the phrasing of the translation, a muddled ideas: Boredom takes the proportion of immortality could suggest Boredom is a surveyor of sorts, but even getting that far takes decoding. The clotted syntax continues after the dash,  in “of whom the world we live in never thinks” and “it is its surly way.” And the diction veers from the empty inflation of “nought” and “dreadful” to the flatness of “thinks” and the misguided “surly.” Campbell is not a bad translator. These are difficult lines to translate.

Poochigian begins his translation with a line that echoes the mournful drag of Baudelaire’s verse, recalling Lowell’s superb translation of “The Nurse”: “The dead, the poor dead, they have their bad hours.” “Nothing can move more slowly than the limping hours” is, moreover, both despondency and boast, catching at Baudelaire’s simultaneous pride and self-loathing, his razor’s edge of self-dramatization. “Oppressive drifts of snowy years” risks redundancy with “oppressive,” but the redundancy brings to the front what may have been missed in “drifts” alone: they lie atop, they smother, they hem in. “Oppressive” establishes the enclosing, suffocating force of time. “The fruit of melancholy lethargy” invokes just enough Keats, and compounds two abstractions that fit without being worn out as a pair; the phrasing isn’t allowed to explode too much, as, say Campbell’s abortion image does; it is at one with the lethargy it describes, but also finds animation within that condition, as does Baudelaire’s poem. “The magnitude of immortality” gets at the right idea, and “magnitude” is rich with the ore of greatness, so that Baudelaire cowers in some awe beneath immortality and ennui alike. “Fenced in by enigmatic fear” makes the passive verb more dynamic than “surrounded” or “encompassed,” and gives fear a physical presence. Here is where Poochigian’s boldest moves occur: “enigmatic” points towards the sphinx, whose smile is mysterious and who asked riddles, but rather than suggest that the granite is the sphinx, Poochigian introduces an “or” where Baudelaire has a semi-colon: this is an alternative conception of what living matter has become. The “or” responds to the restlessness of Baudelaire’s imagination, asking that we recognize that his possibilities, though organically developed from one another, are not a single coherent description of a stable image, but instead an evolution of related images held together by the same feeling. “Dim Saharan desertscape” is the most shocking of Poochigian’s choices: gone is the mist, and we might ask why he does not just name, as Baudelaire does, the Sahara, until we realize that Baudelaire named the Sahara as a surrogate for somewhere alien, exotic, only seen in illustrations. But we know the look of the Sahara too well; Poochigian instead wants to invoke a science-fiction planet surface, something that we cannot quite define; it is not THE sphinx, but A primeval sphinx that flesh has become, and by avoiding that identification with the well-known monument, we are returned instead to the sphinx as myth and monster, and so to flesh as myth and monster, primeval because it is ancient and because our flesh is primitive to who we are.  “Stricken from the map” gives us again a dynamic verb, with the suggestion of violence, oppression of the flesh, and exile from our natural selves, and the “careless” world is feckless, reckless and also indifferent to what has happened. The frown, not smile, is suitably indignant: it passes moral judgment in the setting sun, with the final line itself casting a long ray of steadied verse across the page.  And all the while, the translation has the virtues of good prose, without dislocation, without cramped economy, and without straining towards poesy or style beyond the relation of one figure to another and the exactitude of description.

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