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Lawrence, the "pure present" and les années de pèlerinage

Michael Bell

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  • 1 "Preface to New Poems," The Poems, vol I, ed. Christopher Pollnitz (Cambridge: Cambridge University (...)

1Introducing his New Poems in 1919, Lawrence gave what might seem a very clear, considered and positive statement on the question of temporality. Explaining his "poetry of the present," he declared there is "One realm we have never conquered: the pure present."1 His "free" verse form expresses no less than a metaphysic, a whole way of life: it seeks to acknowledge, he writes, the "most superb mystery we have hardly recognised: the immediate, instant self" and he concludes "Poetry gave us the clue: free verse. Whitman. Now we know." While all these words are apparently simple, transparent and by now familiar to the point of banality to many readers of Lawrence, they point to something declaredly mysterious and perhaps quite literally inconceivable. For human beings endowed with self-consciousness and therefore with memory, the "pure present" is an oxymoronic notion pointing to an impossibility. Or perhaps, in so far as it is achievable, we see its real nature in those unfortunate sufferers from Alzheimer’s disease, trapped in an eternal present. Yet if it is neither possible nor desirable in a literal sense, the pure present may nonetheless be significant as a regulative ideal for a philosophical outlook. If this is so, what exactly does it mean in practice, and more especially, what happens to the past when this ideal is approached? Perhaps Lawrence’s poetry gives a sufficiently tangible example of what he means in the immediate context but the stated ideal seems to have a more general application and I would like to examine the notion of the pure present more closely in the light of Lawrence’s fiction and in the larger context of his career.

2 It is helpful to recollect what precedes and follows the brief paragraph in which this phrase occurs. The preceding paragraph declares that where free verse is concerned

[f]or such utterance any externally-applied law would be mere shackles and death. The law must come new each time from within. The bird is on the wing in the winds, flexible to every breath, a living spark in the storm, its very flickering depending upon its supreme mutability and power of change. Whence such a bird came: whither it goes: from what solid earth it rose up, and upon what solid earth it will close its wings and settle, this is not the question. This is a question of before and after. Now, now the bird is on the wing in the winds.

3The paragraph that follows my initial quotation jumps to a rejection of the fixed ideal:

The ideal―what is the ideal? A figment. An abstraction. A static abstraction, abstracted from life. It is a fragment of the before or the after. It is a crystallised aspiration, or a crystallised remembrance: crystallised, set, finished. It is a thing set apart, in the great storehouse of eternity, the store-house of finished things.

4The "pure present" is effectively sandwiched here between two inhuman extremes. Initially, Lawrence draws on one of his favourite images: the bird in flight. The extraordinarily delicate yet powerful control over the momentary shifting of the winds is envisaged in a creature entirely, and quite properly, lacking in self-reflective consciousness. Lawrence then leaps to condemning the "ideal" as a pure mental abstraction. The ideal in this view has an equal and opposite inhumanity in becoming a mere "thing." On this argument, we are invited to understand the pure present for human purposes only through two inhuman possibilities to which it stands in contrast and, revealingly perhaps, the link between the pure present and the abstract ideal is Walt Whitman.

5Whitman was a deeply ambivalent figure for Lawrence because, while on the one hand he created in his free verse the dynamic impact of felt present life, he was also subject, in Lawrence’s view, to emotional and categorial idealising. Indeed, he exemplifies the fatal readiness of those apparent opposites, instinct and idealism, to collapse into each other in the mind and what Lawrence detected in Whitman was, of course, his own besetting vice. If for Whitman it was possible for the experience of comradeship to become an idealised embrace of all comers, then may not Lawrence’s pure present also be an alluring abstraction, a crystallized figment created by thought? The effect of binary logic in creating illusory entities is now familiar. If we think we know A, largely by contrasting it with B defined as its opposite, then we readily believe we must know B too. But perhaps our understanding of each is mainly a matter of placing them both within vacuously self-fulfilling categories. The question of the pure present is especially important since the notion of living in the present is by now a cliché of self-improvement advice and Lawrence’s characteristic focus on fundamental human concerns has always left him notoriously susceptible to popular, as well as academic, banalisation. By the same token, however, the fatal familiarity of the advice to live in the present makes it worth looking more closely at Lawrence as a distinctive and distinguished instance of such an attempt. The banality of the standard advice points to the representative significance of the project. Given that the idea of the pure present is so elusive, I will approach it obliquely and from several angles.

  • 2 Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge Universit (...)

6The important positive point to repeat first is that the strict impossibility of experiencing the pure present does not of itself mean that any attempt to achieve it is without value. What is at stake is a psychological disposition it helps to define and which is quite readily understood in its general intention. One of the most notable expressions of this insight was a thought experiment in Friedrich Nietzsche’s essay On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life. Nietzsche reflected on the way human awareness of time is open to an excessive and damaging preoccupation with past and future: the past as an object of nostalgia or regret and the future of anxiety or longing. So he proposed the diagnostic experiment of asking whether any individual would be willing to live the same ten or twenty years over and over again.2 Most people, he says, would regard the prospect with horror but for anyone living absolutely in the present it would not matter. By frankly acknowledging the literal impossibility of the proposition, the thought experiment focuses so much the more sharply the psychological insight at its heart. By the same token, however, the Nietzschean thought experiment remains at a high level of philosophical abstraction and in this matter, as in others, Lawrence can be seen as testing out Nietzschean insights in more practical ways. And if Nietzsche’s title suggests that advantages and disadvantages may be mutually imbricated then the pure present may not be without its downside.

7Lawrence’s career exemplifies several difficulties of living in the present some of which are essential to it and others more circumstantial. I wonder if a large circumstantial difficulty for Lawrence might lie in his inescapable relation to the surrounding culture. He was, of course, generally courageous and self-conscious in his independence from, if not direct opposition to, contemporary socio-cultural assumptions. He was always an outsider. But the internal consciousness of lived temporality is elusively metaphysical and subtly pervasive such that an oppositional stance is hard to localise or even to perceive. It is the very medium of the surrounding culture that governs the life of the individual rather than any conscious philosophy. This aspect struck me forcibly when reading Lafcadio Hearne on traditional Japanese life. Working as a teacher in Japan in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, Hearne observed the ancient Japanese form of life even as it was being dissipated by modernisation. In so far as Hearne writes as a frank admirer of a culture already fading into the past, his account may be doubly idealised but its ethnographic accuracy is not the point here so much as the model of social life he portrays as an anti-type to his own. Indeed, Hearne was in this respect like Lawrence in being a traveller who perhaps found in a foreign and pre-modern people hints and models of what he found lacking in his own culture. In effect, Hearne describes the Japanese, in his book Kokorro (1895), as a society for whom living in the present was not the difficult exception but the normal condition.

8Hearne was struck by the radical impermanence of Japanese life as reflected in all its aspects and especially in the fragility of common objects, such as houses. Even a large, substantial structure, a major Shinto shrine, is ritually demolished and rebuilt at regular intervals with the shards distributed to pilgrims. And he delights in the claim, even if apocryphal, that the elegantly curved roofs of oriental buildings are a surviving echo of their derivation from nomadic tents. Likewise, a radical sense of impermanence characterises the relation to all everyday objects. The Japanese, he says, if suddenly required to go on a long journey, can leave almost instantly as there is so little that needs to be taken along. Even shoes are light, disposable items to be rapidly replaced whether travelling or not. What imposes itself here is the sense of a complete way of life which is only livable because each individual thread of the social fabric is woven into the others: impermanence is a norm assumed across the whole social world. And by the same token, this suggests how difficult it might be for a single individual to live in such a way within a completely opposed culture. Hence Lawrence’s radical sense of being an outsider in this respect as in others.

9At the same time, as the regular demolition of the shrine indicates, the recognition of impermanence in traditional Japanese culture is far from implying the complete isolation of the present moment from the past. On the contrary, Hearne’s account may lead us to understand the continuing importance of ritual for the Japanese as a mode of relation to the past, or, one might say, as a mode of permanence constructed out of the very materials of impermanence. Ceremonial, which is such a striking feature of Japanese life, can be looked on as a social and temporal architecture by which the present is connected to the past, and the past contained in the present, in an unusually strong and self-conscious way. Where human beings are concerned, living in the present cannot mean living without a past but can only mean a specific way of living with it. Ceremonial would not, one imagines, generally speaking be Lawrence’s way of doing this but he was leaning against a directly opposed culture and it is intriguing to speculate whether a fully shared social experience of his own temporality of the present would have made ritual attractive to him. There are hints of this in his work such as ritual-like episodes in The Rainbow and the cultish ceremonies of The Plumed Serpent. And apart from such episodes, what has been said of ritual might also be said of the novels in which they occur. Maybe literary works of art are themselves a form of ritual, periodically re-enacted in the lives of readers, and the reciprocity of past and present embodied in ritual raises by analogy a question concerning the handling of past and present in Lawrence’s fiction; and indeed concerning the abrupt opposition he posits between his own free verse "poetry of the present" and the "gem-like lyrics of Shelley and Keats."

  • 3 3 Seamus Perry, "Bats. Planless, boisterous and bloody-minded: how D. H. Lawrence arrived at his 'u (...)

10Seamus Perry has recently noted how the phrase "gem-like" echoes Walter Pater who, although he is traditionally associated with nineteenth-century aestheticism, has more recently come to be seen rather as a Nietzschean forerunner to the modernist generation.3 Albeit Pater encountered it largely through or in works of art, what he truly celebrated was the intensity of lived experience as such. And it is in precisely such a spirit that the finely crafted lyric is often a means of experiencing lived time in the present; a recognition that is both thematised and enacted in Shakespeare’s highly crafted sonnet 55 "Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes [….]." The sonnet offers its ever-living verbal experience of the loved one as superior to the deadly aura of a stone monument while simultaneously incorporating a monumental gravitas into its formal rhetoric: " ‘Gainst death and all oblivious enmity/Shall you pace forth." Livingness and permanence have a reciprocal relation here, a mutual dependence, analogous to that of past and present in ritual. Whereas Shakespeare’s crafted lyric acknowledges the inescapable co-existence of past and present in consciousness, and thereby conserves the past as an always revived present, the poem of the present, when consciously conceived as such, risks consigning itself to the past except in so far as it secretly partakes of the craft of permanence as Lawrence’s most enduring poems do. Of course, all this is not to deny the general thrust of Lawrence’s poetic manifesto but just to indicate how porous is the apparently black and white distinction he draws, and how the mutual porousness of the opposed verse forms reflects that of the temporalities they represent.

11I have isolated this point in principle because I believe it raises a more general question about Lawrence’s attitude to literary form more generally, and especially in relation to temporality for, if poetry is always working to elide the distinction between past and present, it is in his longer fictions that the question becomes problematic. Extended narratives, or at least the ones that become widely accepted as important, usually embody an experience of temporality endowed with significance. Even the denial of significance is significant at the literary level although most traditional fiction seeks to persuade the reader that significance inheres within the experience that is narrated. Indeed, it is a characteristic art of the realist novel to make significance seem entirely immanent to the life portrayed. And Lawrence is clearly at this Tolstoyan end of the novelistic spectrum: he seeks above all to put the reader in possession of lived experience. Hence, whereas Lawrence’s short fiction shows a poised sense of formal shaping throughout his career, the sequence of his longer works evinces a significant struggle not just with specific formal demands but with formal shaping as such.

  • 4 The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, vol I, ed. James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (...)

12As he reworked the drafts of Paul Morel to become Sons and Lovers he memorably declared "it has got form - form."’4 The excitement suggests, as well as the young writer finding his metier, the characteristically Lawrencian recognition of a form that has emerged from the creative struggle itself, a form that is the outcome of a process of discovery. His next two published novels, which remain by general consent his most significant achievements in the genre, are striking examples of this principle and the more so for being so formally different. Indeed, if the second had retained its earlier working title, then the successive titles The Rainbow and Dies Irae, would have neatly encapsulated how the different formal characteristics of the two novels represent opposed temporal perspectives: The Rainbow implying the complete temporal span of the human species and Dies Irae a single day of highly concentrated import.

13The form of The Rainbow is a supple shaping of temporality. Under its Biblical sign, the novel imparts Lawrence’s religious trust in life into an evolutionary process as the three generations of the Brangwens rehearse the experience of their predecessors with subtle gradations of repetition and transformation. Individuals grow by rehearsing moments of their own earlier selfhood as well as the impacted experience of their forebears. Moreover, the structure of the novel distinguishes sharply those characters in each generation who lose contact with their past, such as Alfred, Uncle Tom and Skrebensky, from those whose onward movement somehow retains the connection. The first Tom Brangwen’s courtship of Lydia establishes this ready invocation of the past and the episode in the barn as she gives birth to their first child is a signal example of the difficulty, at least for him, of living in the pure present. For him, indeed, living in the pure present would be a disaster. The moment of Lydia’s labour is for him both unbearable and incomprehensible: only his cosmic trust enables him to lapse out completely so that his present is flooded, quite savingly, with his personal and ancestral past. The characters who carry the Lawrencian values are always negotiating a shifting, dynamic interplay of past and present as one or the other has priority for, as Ursula realises when she meets Maggie Schofield’s brother Anthony, to be stuck in the past is as much of a limitation as losing it entirely. The interrelation is all.

  • 5 S. L. Goldberg, "The Rainbow: Fiddle-bow and Sand," Essays in Criticism, xi, 1961, 418-434.

14Over the course of The Rainbow, however, the sense of the past as a saving resource is progressively attenuated. S. L. Goldberg long ago argued that Ursula’s story, in the third generation, is dramatically less substantial because she lacks, in her assertion of herself, the opposition of an equal partner in relationship.5 To this it might be added that she lacks a testing relation to the past as she is increasingly inclined only to reject it. Her passage into modern dualism is defined as a change in the shaping of temporality. The Brangwen children

[…]lived the year of Christianity[…] having at least this rhythm of eternity in a ragged, inconsequential life.

  • 6 The Rainbow, ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 261.

But it was becoming a mechanical action now, this drama: birth at Christmas for death at Good Friday. On Easter Sunday the life-drama was as good as finished. For the Resurrection was shadowy and overcome by the shadow of death, the Ascension was scarce noticed, a mere confirmation of death.6

15Ordinary time becomes merely empty and mortal while Ursula maintains an intuitive sense of the eternal for which she can find no home. The past is no longer a resource as it had been for Tom, her grandfather.

  • 7 Women in Love, ed. David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Pr (...)

16This process culminates in Women in Love as all the characters cut themselves off from the past. There might seem to be a momentary exception to this in Ursula’s Proustian experience in a continental railway station as the nocturnal glimpse of a man with a lamp reminds her of her grandfather going out to the barn at night.7 But the effect is exactly the opposite: it now registers the felt distance she has travelled from her childhood. Ever since the beginning of The Rainbow, distance from the family past has been registered as geographical distance from the farm and the circumstance of continental travel helps to consign her memory to a remote past. Moreover, although this moment is attributed to Ursula, it seems to catch something radical in Lawrence himself as he was finally able to leave England after the war. The past seems to have little of a saving nature to offer him either.

17Women in Love is in many respects the fulcrum on which Lawrence’s novelistic oeuvre turned. He subsequently wrote a different kind of long fiction in which the formal command of The Rainbow and Women in Love gives way to a looser sense of shaping as the narrative consciousness apparently lays itself open to the process of temporality. A number of these works have been thought of as the "leadership" novels because of their concern with power, or even, in the eyes of hostile critics, for his fantasising of political authority. I believe these works are more appropriately called "pilgrimage" novels not just because of their basis in travel but for the underlying spirit of exploratory openness in which the power theme itself is contained. Of course, this image does not imply the specific and already known goal of the traditional pilgrimage. But it suggests travelling with a serious religious purpose and an unusual consciousness of temporality. If the pilgrim leaves behind daily concerns to travel with a sense of eternity, so Lawrence kept himself free to experience his own religious value: the opposite mystery of the living present.

18In this context it is suggestive that Lawrence’s well-known statement about the pure present should have been written in 1919. Lawrence could perhaps have made this declaration at any time in his life but in relation to the upcoming phase of his longer fiction it has an inaugural value which in turn suggests its possible ambivalence. To what extent was the post-war Lawrence seeking a pure present or rather escaping a past? I called Ursula’s moment in the train station "Proustian" because of its psychological mechanism of affective memory but its value, of course, is directly opposite. Whereas the Proustian emotional memory is the entry to a timeless bliss, Lawrence has a great fear of nostalgia. The past is always trying to capture us through the emotions.

  • 8 Composed 1905-7, revised 1918. Poems, vol i., 108.

19For both Proust and Lawrence, the figure of the mother was the tutelary divinity of the past as is evident in Lawrence’s best-known moment of nostalgia, his poem "Piano." The power of Lawrence’s poem lies not so much in its evocation of nostalgia triggered by affective memory as in the helpless horror of the speaker in the face of the emotion: "the insidious mastery of song/betrays me back" till "my manhood is cast down in a flood of memory."8 On the face of it, his poem "Nostalgia," by dwelling on the impossibility of returning to the past, might seem to express the desire to do so. But the speaker’s melodramatically imagined embrace of the past world ends with destructive violence:

  • 9 Composed spring 1918, published 1919. Poems, vol. i., 131. Pollnitz comments: "Although it has been (...)

I kiss the stones, I kiss the moss on the wall,
And wish I could pass impregnate into the place.
I wish I could take it all in a last embrace.
I wish with my breast I here could annihilate it all.9

20A "last embrace" indeed. Does the speaker wish to annihilate the past world as such, or just its power over him?

21His poem "Dreams Old and Nascent" makes the horror of the past very explicit and although its first version was published in 1909, its imagery, like some pre-war German expressionist poetry, seems to anticipate the bitterness of the war:

I have lived delighted in the halls of the past
Where dead men’s lives glow gently, and iron hurts
No more, and money stinks not, and death at last
Is only sad men taking off their shirts.

  • 10 Published in The English Review 1909, revised 1927. Poems vol i., 131.

But now I think I have seen it all, and now
I feel thick walls of stone behind the arras.
I am shut in, a prisoner, I know not how.
And past lives hamper me, clog and embarrass.10

22Lawrence’s fight against the past did not begin with the war, but by its end there was a potent blend of personal and general motives in his horror of the past. His external rejection of the stupefying weight of tradition in the British social world is reinforced by its apparent opposite: fear of the internal seduction of nostalgia. While Lawrence, therefore, had every reason to escape the emotional violence done to him by others over this period, did he in some measure unconsciously succumb to it by a damaging idealisation of the pure present? In the light of this possibility, the separation of The Wedding Ring into two novels, and the implicit consigning of Lawrence’s richest vision of English life to a now unattainable past, takes on a deeper implication for his oeuvre.

  • 11 See Michael Bell, D. H. Lawrence: Language and Being (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), (...)

23 Is The Plumed Serpent, for example, the work of a courageous thought-adventurer who, like all explorers, has momentarily lost his way, or is it, more radically, the product of a man who has lost his roots? We don’t have to choose between these alternatives as he is clearly both but the question rather lies in the relation between them. Did the thought-adventuring lose some of its proper gravitas in losing the kind of organic or intuitive recourse to the past depicted in the first Tom Brangwen? Temporality is a major preoccupation of The Plumed Serpent but, as I have indicated elsewhere, it suffers precisely from being such a self-conscious theme.11 For example, the stated desire of Ramón Carrasco to escape the tyranny of modern clock time, while at the same time devising a folkish terminology precisely to indicate it, catches the willed oxymoronic impasse in which Lawrence found himself. He idealises an anthropological past which is now conceived as no more than an obverse, notional reflection of the modern time-bound condition. Likewise, the rituals of The Plumed Serpent are too self-conscious to be convincing. Most readers agree that, while the terrible weight of Mexican history from pre-Columbian to modern times remains a baleful power throughout the novel, Ramón’s attempts to renew it seem hopelessly ideal. Was it the loss of Lawrence’s own past, along with the power of a repressed or deflected nostalgia, that left him especially vulnerable to such imaginings?

  • 12 F. R. Leavis, "The Orthodoxy of Enlightenment" in Anna Karenina and Other Essays (London: Chatto an (...)

24 In his final novel Lawrence did in some sense return to his roots. The composition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was stimulated in part by a visit to the English Midlands but one that mainly aroused his horror and sense of alienation. Many readers find the novel a brave, humorously defiant work but most also acknowledge its relative simplicity compared to The Rainbow and Women in Love. F. R. Leavis, when he became a severe critic of the book, said that the Lawrence who wrote it had forgotten the meaning of marriage.12 Lawrence may have been a more penetrating observer than Leavis in seeing how radically the past had been smashed and in making that loss the premise of his novel. Yet there is surely some force in Leavis’s charge. Marriage is one of the most potent, and widely understood, symbols of a human relation to time which, to return to an earlier point, is traditionally embedded in a social nexus. While Connie and Mellors certainly make such a mutual commitment, the novel detaches them from social connection and, indeed, the three successive versions of the novel are characterised by their gradual shift from social realism to something incipiently fabular as if this were the necessary, albeit perhaps reluctant, condition of Lawrence’s theme. While short works, and especially such fables as "The Woman who Rode Away" and "The Man who Died," reflect how Lawrence’s prose bore the flame of life to the end, his longer, realist fiction shows a concomitant attenuation.

25One can only conclude, therefore, on a note of ambivalence. Whatever its disadvantages and its possibly reactive basis, Lawrence’s pursuit of the pure present has a unique value. Seamus Perry, in the review article already mentioned, has aptly described Lawrence’s writing as "a potentially unending series of reports back on what it was like to be D. H. Lawrence." "To be," indeed. The infinitive here nicely combines the instability of Lawrence’s pure present with a timeless intuition of pure Being. And if there is a hint of the front line in Perry’s image, it appropriately captures the risky ambivalence of the project: its solitary courage and its unique insight.

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1 "Preface to New Poems," The Poems, vol I, ed. Christopher Pollnitz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 649.

2 Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 65.

3 3 Seamus Perry, "Bats. Planless, boisterous and bloody-minded: how D. H. Lawrence arrived at his 'unrestful, ungraspable poetry of the sheer present’’’, TLS, no 5771, November 8, 2013, p. 3. On Pater see Richard Wollheim, "Walter Pater as a Critic of the Arts," in On Art and the Mind, (London: Allen Lane, 1973),135-176.

4 The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, vol I, ed. James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 476.

5 S. L. Goldberg, "The Rainbow: Fiddle-bow and Sand," Essays in Criticism, xi, 1961, 418-434.

6 The Rainbow, ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 261.

7 Women in Love, ed. David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 390.

8 Composed 1905-7, revised 1918. Poems, vol i., 108.

9 Composed spring 1918, published 1919. Poems, vol. i., 131. Pollnitz comments: "Although it has been associated with the Hocking’s farm it bears 'no known relation' to it."

10 Published in The English Review 1909, revised 1927. Poems vol i., 131.

11 See Michael Bell, D. H. Lawrence: Language and Being (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 165-207.

12 F. R. Leavis, "The Orthodoxy of Enlightenment" in Anna Karenina and Other Essays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1967), 241.

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Michael Bell, « Lawrence, the "pure present" and les années de pèlerinage », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 48 | 2017, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2017, consulté le 09 décembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.287

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Michael Bell

University of Warwick, Coventry, UK

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