Source File: cat.cs005.xml
From Cather Studies Volume 5

The Observant Eye, the Art of Illustration, and Willa Cather's My Ántonia

In early 1919 Willa Cather wrote to her friend from childhood, Carrie Miner Sherwood, inquiring whether Carrie had received the gift she had sent her for Christmas, a print of Albrecht Dürer's watercolor of a hare.[1] The painting shows a single animal on an empty white ground. It is rendered with such clarity that one can distinguish individual hairs in the animal's coat (see fig. 1). Cather's choice of this particular painting for her gift was, it seems to me, entirely characteristic of her way of seeing the world, which was also her way of rendering the world in her fiction. Like Dürer's painting, her writing was focused, finely but selectively detailed, and freed of background clutter. As Eudora Welty discerningly pointed out a number of years ago, Cather's fiction typically occupies either far panoramas or a clear foreground, while tending to be vacant in the middle distance. Again like the hare in Dürer's watercolor (with opaque white touches), her selected details are characteristically surrounded by blankness, the unsaid or the disregarded. Throwing the bulk of the furniture out the window, as she proclaimed a desire to do in "The Novel Démeublé" (42), she allows the reader's eye along with her own to focus on the few selected pieces that are kept in the room. It is largely this isolation of individual details against an uncluttered middle ground—perhaps like the microscopic views she would have experienced as a budding scientist in her adolescent years— that accounts for the effect of visual acuity in Cather's writing.

Dürer's hare. Courtesy Albertina, Wien, AustriaFig. 1. Dürer's hare. Courtesy Albertina, Wien, Austria

As Welty's remark about the locus of Cather's vision, either in the far perspective or in close focus, implies, she does not so much amass details as focus on a few specific details one at a time. For example:

There are many other examples that could be cited. Critics have often noted that these specific, isolated presences gain a luminous significance. They also gain visual clarity from being set alone against a blankness. When Cather wished to convey to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant the sense of her new heroine as she was beginning My Ántonia, she reached for a single glazed jar and placed it by itself on the clear space of Elsie's desk (149). In this anecdote illustrating the visual nature of Cather's thought processes, the concrete image of the jar established in the reader's mind becomes emblematic of the abstract idea of the heroine's centrality in the novel. It makes the idea real.

Cather's own association of reality with visual experience is evident in letters that she wrote to Dorothy Canfield in 1902 during her first trip to England. Writing from Ludlow, in Shropshire, she said that she had been tracking A. E. Housman through the scenes of his poetry and had seen with her own eyes the Severn River reflecting nearby steeples, the "lads" playing football, the nearness of the jail to the railroad switchyard in Shrewsbury, precisely as these details are reported in "Is my team ploughing" and "On moonlit heath and lonesome bank." Having seen these things, she said, she now realized that Housman's poetry was even truer than she had previously thought. Truth is linked with seeing. What made Housman's poetry truer for her was visual verification. She had seen the specific details recorded in his poems, verified poem against sight, and on that basis judged the poems true.[2] Visual accuracy makes truth. What this means for the writing of poetry is that the poet must be able to evoke clear visual images in language. But before that can happen the poet must possess the power of observation, the ability to see clearly. If Housman had lacked that power, he would not have been able to carry these details into his poetry, and it would presumably have been less true.

Cather seems to have seen the world very much as Housman saw it—very clearly indeed. She seems to have possessed, as he did, close powers of observation that are translated into clear visual images conveying, as such images do in Housman's poetry, rich resonance. Recognition of the visual quality of her style is, of course, one of the staples of Cather criticism. Whether we think in terms of powerful symbolizing pictures like the plow against the setting sun or in terms of small visual details like the ring of dirt around the sink in the opening chapter of One of Ours (3) or the "thread of green liquid" oozing from the crushed head of the snake in My Ántonia (45), we recognize that her writing has the power to make us see. It also has the power to convince us of the keenness with which Cather herself saw.

More direct evidence of the sharpness of Cather's powers of observation is provided by a small treasure found at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, her personal copy of F. Schuyler Mathews's Field Book of American Wild Flowers (1902). Looking through this book that bears the evidence of Cather's observation of her natural surroundings is an enlightening experience—and moreover a very moving one; between the pages is a tiny clover, threadlike stem, tiny root ball, and all still intact, that she must have placed there. This is the field guide to wildflowers that she carried on her nature walks for over twenty years, from 1917 to 1938. It is heavily annotated in her distinctive hand with checkmarks or lines in the margin beside entries (for some 156 distinct varieties) and comments in the margin beside others. These annotations provide abundant demonstration that Cather was a remarkably close observer of plant life.

A number of entries in the Field Book record the dates and places where she saw particular plants. Mostly these indicate Jaffrey, New Hampshire, the rustic resort town at the foot of Mount Monadnock where she spent her autumns for many years, or Grand Manan, the island off the coast of New Brunswick where she and Edith Lewis had a cabin. Three times she records having seen certain plants—the calamus or sweet fig, the flowering dogwood, and the pinxter flower or wild honeysuckle—in Virginia during her visit in 1938, during the writing of Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Several times, as if Mathews's descriptions had jogged her memory, she notes that she had seen such-and-such a plant in Nebraska. But the most striking entries are those in which she actually adds details to the book's already detailed descriptions. These are astonishingly precise. When Mathews describes the "small dense clusters" of flowers on the arrow-leafed tearthumb (108), Cather adds that the clusters are club-shaped. When Mathews describes the "generally smooth stem" of the Canada hawkweed (526), she insists that the branches and stem were joined in sharp angles. When he describes the leaves of the white woodland aster as "smooth," she notes that on the underside they are bristly along the veins (484). On the back of one of the plates she wrote a long description of the habitat and characteristics of the exignous, with its sawtooth-edged, sessile leaves (486)—sessile meaning attached to the main stem at the base rather than with an intermediate stem.

We see in these annotations Cather's effort to observe the natural world as closely as she could and to describe it as minutely, in as accurate language, as she could. This practice of close observation that she brought to her experience of her various natural environments as she walked, hiked, and climbed translates itself, through the medium of her lucid prose, into precision of rendered details. Her descriptions evince a remarkable eye-hand coordination: a linkage of visual experience and verbal virtuosity.

A similar clarity and focus, as well as another kind of linkage of the visual and the verbal, characterize the illustrations of the first edition and (until recently) most subsequent editions of My Ántonia. It is these illustrations and, even more, the process of their conception and development for the text that I am primarily interested in here. We know that it was Cather herself who conceived the idea for the eight spare pen-and-ink drawings and selected the artist to do them, after having tried to make suitable drawings herself. My central questions are: Why did she choose W. T. Benda and why did she want illustrations of precisely this kind, which are actually quite different from Benda's usual work?

In the textual commentary to the Scholarly Edition of My Ántonia Charles Mignon states that Cather wanted Benda "because he knew both Europe and the American West" (512). That is indeed the reason she indicated on 24 November 1917, in a letter to Ferris Greenslet, her editor at Houghton Mifflin. W. T. Benda was in fact an immigrant from Bohemia (the national group primarily emphasized in My Ántonia) who had lived in theWest and paintedWestern subjects.[3] Cather was aware of his work from her days as editor at McClure's; Benda illustrations appeared in a dozen or more issues of the magazine between 1906 and 1912.[4] The letter to Greenslet of 24 November 1917 goes on to say that another reason she wants Benda, besides his familiarity with both Europe and the American West, is that he has imagination and has been willing to work with her to get precisely the effects she wanted. My conjecture, which I will go into below, is that there was still another reason, which she doesn't mention.

What Cather wanted was very different from what Houghton Mifflin initially wanted. The publisher proposed illustrating the book with a frontispiece (wc to Greenslet, 24 November 1917). Cather was determined not to have so conventional a decoration and one that would necessarily have generalized. Not only did she prefer that the drawings be attached narratively to specific moments or ideas in the text, as the Benda drawings are, but she was intent on having a series of drawings that would give the impression of the minimalist line techniques of woodcuts. Her correspondence with editors Greenslet and Scaife is striking in its revelation of just how emphatic her determination was and the extent to which visual design was a part of her creative act of authorship. She conceived the appearance of the book while she was still conceiving, or at any rate executing, the verbal text. Mignon comments that as early as 13 March 1917, "even before she had completed a first draft" of the novel, Cather was "thinking as a designer might about how to present her work" (483). In Jean Schwind's words, she "acted as artistic director of the project" (53). At various points in the correspondence she specified the kind of paper that should be used for the illustrations, their sizing, their placement in the text, and even their placement on the page (wc to Miss [Helen] Bishop, Secretary to F. Greenslet, "Saturday," 2 February 1918).

Cather justified her determination not to have a conventional frontispiece in conjunction with explaining why she wanted Benda (wc to R. L. Scaife, 1 December 1917). She had seen his pen-and-ink drawings in Jacob Riis's 1909 book The Old Town. (We might note that The Old Town is a book that evokes a lost but nostalgically remembered European setting—a congenial theme as Cather thought about My Ántonia.) It is significant that in referring to Benda's work in the Riis book Cather specified the drawings. She did not use the more general term "illustrations" because in fact most of the illustrations (both a frontispiece and full-page glossies scattered through the volume) are not pen-and-ink drawings at all, but charcoal halftones. These were Benda's usual kind of work. But Cather indicated explicitly that they were what she did not want. She told Scaife that she considered Benda's halftones stilted (wc to R. L. Scaife, 7 April 1917). In addition to the full-page illustrations for Riis's book, however, Benda had done a number of simpler, more open pen-and-ink head-and-tail pieces. Even these are more filled up with details than the drawings he would do for Ántonia, as we can see from his headpiece to chapter 4, "Christmas Sheaf" (78, see fig. 2) and his mid-chapter ornament from chapter 2, "Fanö Women"(21, see fig. 3). Yet we can see how she might have discerned in such drawings the potential for achieving what she had in mind, through simplifying and "un-cluttering" them even further.

Pen and ink drawing from The Old Town—"Christmas Sheaf"Fig. 2. Pen and ink drawing from The Old Town—"Christmas Sheaf" "Fanö Women" from The Old TownFig. 3. "Fanö Women" from The Old Town

Benda in fact captured in these spare drawings much of the essence of Cather's spare style. They have the visual equivalence of her selective focus on a few details set against a far prospect with an emptied middle ground—that quality of isolated detail that Welty designated as the elimination of the middle ground. Benda captured these qualities not only because he read the text in typescript, and as a capable professional was able to vary his style accordingly, but because Cather worked closely with him on his conceptualization of the drawings. Indeed, as I have pointed out, she established for him the kind of illustrations she wanted by first trying to draw them herself. Having tried to make her own head-and-tail pieces, she told Greenslet, she wanted an artist who would emulate her efforts (wc to Greenslet, 18 October 1917). She was in control. A little over a month later she reported that Benda was indeed seeking to capture her precise intentions (wc to Greenslet, 24 November 1917).

Shimerda family on train platform, My ÁntoniaFig. 4. Shimerda family on train platform, My Ántonia

There are eight drawings in all. Originally there were to have been twelve, but Houghton Mifflin's skimpy production budget would not pay for more (wc to Greenslet, 24 November 1917). This would seem to account for their concentration in the early parts of the text.

The illustrations are familiar to most readers of My Ántonia, but will bear reviewing in order to emphasize certain features. As Cather herself said, they capture the tone of the novel admirably.

Drawing 1 comes in the first chapter, Jim Burden's narration of his train trip to Nebraska. We see, much as Jim would have seen, an immigrant family waiting among their bundles on what we assume, from the textual context, to be a train platform (see fig. 4). These are, of course, the Shimerdas arriving in Nebraska. The man's downward gaze and the darkness of the drawing, quite unlike the others in the series, speak of discouragement. The girl whose bright eyes will be celebrated gazes out beyond the reader. Central emphasis is on the woman's cradling grasp of a treasured possession. Benda's practiced technique is greatly in evidence here both in mood and in composition.

Mr. Shimerda, My ÁntoniaFig. 5. Mr. Shimerda, My Ántonia

Drawing 2 shows Mr. Shimerda again, tall and lanky, still with bowed head suggestive of discouragement. Ántonia and Jim have spied her father out hunting, and Ántonia has confided to Jim that he is unhappy in the new country (see fig. 5). Despite conveying discouragement, this picture strikes the outdoor note that will characterize all the rest. For the first time we gain a visual impression of the vastness of the prairie and especially the spaciousness of its sky. Scattered curving lines indicate the prairie grass, and the sinking sun sends its long beams up into the sky, disappearing into blank page.

Drawing 3 is equally narrative in import, echoing the incident of the dried mushrooms given to Grandmother Burden by Mrs. Shimerda. It hints at far-off places, with a woman gathering mushrooms in the old country (see fig. 6). The woman's figure is generalized, with perhaps the clearest details being her rolled up sleeve, conveying the idea of physical work, and a cluster of mushrooms clearly seen in the foreground. There seems to be quiet and isolation all around.

Women gathering mushrooms, My ÁntoniaFig. 6. Women gathering mushrooms, My Ántonia Bringing home the Christmas tree, My ÁntoniaFig. 7. Bringing home the Christmas tree, My Ántonia

Drawing 4 shows the hired man bringing home the Christmas tree (see fig. 7). With notable minimalism, the drawing indicates the empty countryside, the narrow trail, and a few weeds. The big, absolutely empty sky is indicated by blank paper.

Ántonia plowingFig. 8. Ántonia plowing Jim and Ántonia, setting sunFig. 9. Jim and Ántonia, setting sun

Drawing 5 shows another big sky, an effect Cather sought to emphasize by having the illustrations lowered on the page so as to create a sense of sunlight and air at the top (wc to Miss Bishop, "Saturday," 2 February 1918, see fig. 8). This time summer thunderheads are indicated. Once again there is emptiness all around, with a strong central focus on Ántonia herself, the plow, the horses, and the heavy horse collar.

Lena, My ÁntoniaFig. 10. Lena, My Ántonia

Drawing 6 is reminiscent of drawing 2, with its sunrays (see fig. 9). In this case, it is the sinking sun that will magnify the plow on the horizon. We see companionable young people, a head scarf implying immigrant identity, one sunflower plant, and empty prairie all around. This drawing demonstrates particularly well the idea of the vacant middle distance, with nothing intervening between its depictions of horizon and close-up details.

Drawing 7 shows another big summer sky with the merest indication of cumulus clouds (see fig. 10). The rows of Lena's knitting are clearly seen, along with her two knitting needles, her bare feet, and the line of a nipple inside her tight bodice— clear focus indeed! Cather gloated over this drawing that Lena was fairly bursting out of her clothes (wc to Greenslet, 7 March 1918).

Ántonia in winterFig. 11. Ántonia in winter

Drawing 8, the last in the series, starkly shows Ántonia struggling through the snow into the wind (see fig. 11). The dark tones of coat, hat, and boots, and the bent position of her head, are reminiscent of the first picture, of the Shimerdas waiting on the train platform. A single line outlines the top of the cloud, closing in the top of the picture in contrast to those in which either the clear sky or the hinted shape of cumuli opens the top. Again Benda captures the emptiness of the prairie, which he emphasizes by isolating a few strong details: snow in the air, tracks, the whip in the hand. It is another masterful example of minimalist design executed with line techniques reminiscent of woodcuts.

We have accounted for Cather's selection of W. T. Benda as her illustrator by citing several factors: his familiarity with both the Old World and the West, her prior acquaintance with him (i.e., a reason of convenience), her admiration of some (but not all) of his work in Jacob Riis's The Old Town, and the fact that he was willing to work with her to catch her conception of the drawings. But where did she get that conception? Here my essay becomes frankly conjectural—offering, however, a conjecture supported by both biographical evidence and visual comparison. I believe that Cather was seeking to emulate the illustrations to Mary Austin's The Land of Little Rain (1903), done by E. Boyd Smith.

The Austin-Cather connection has been recognized for some time. It is well documented that they knew each other personally, and connections between their work have been demonstrated by several critics.[5] For the most part, it is The Song of the Lark and Austin's A Woman of Genius that have been linked, though in fact the connections extend much further, reaching both forward and considerably backward. To my knowledge, no one has suggested any connection of Cather's work to The Land of Little Rain, or even any indication that she was aware of the book. Yet it is quite clear that Cather was familiar with Austin and her writings long before she wrote My Ántonia. David Stouck has identified a likely borrowing by Cather even before 1900, in the 1893 story "A Son of the Celestial." The two were personally acquainted by at least 1910, and in 1917 specifically, the year when Cather was corresponding with Greenslet and Scaife about the Benda illustrations, her awareness of Austin remained sufficiently keen to prompt a brief comment on Austin's newly published novel The Ford in a letter to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant.[6]

Considering the mass of evidence that Cather was aware of Austin as early as the 1890s and that she remained both personally and professionally conversant with her up until Austin's death in 1934, it seems overwhelmingly likely that she knew The Land of Little Rain, the book that launched Austin's career and is usually regarded as her finest work. Probably she would have been aware of its serialization in Atlantic Monthly. Cather was keenly aware of periodical literature and more than once during her years as editor at McClure's advised correspondents to send their manuscripts to Atlantic Monthly. When she did, her clearly specified reasons show that she had more than a reputational acquaintance with that prestigious magazine. The publisher of Austin's series of sketches in book form, in 1903, was Houghton Mifflin, which in less than a decade would also be Cather's publisher and whose acquisitions editor, Ferris Greenslet, would be an acquaintance even sooner. The archive of correspondence between Cather and Greenslet reveals that they at times discussed Austin. There was ample and varied opportunity, then, for her to be acquainted with Austin's book and perhaps with behind-thescenes information about its production history.

Perhaps when Cather looked through Riis's The Old Town— which we know she had seen at least by December 1917 but probably much earlier, perhaps even drawing on it early in the work on My Ántonia for the atmosphere of remembered European origins—Benda's pen-and-ink drawings there reminded her of Smith's in The Land of Little Rain. As we have noted, these were only the head-and-tail pieces and a few small inserts; the fullpage illustrations in Riis's book were the halftones she disliked. And in fact Benda's drawings in My Ántonia more closely resemble Smith's pen-and-ink drawings in Austin's book than they do Benda's own earlier work.

Design is a significant element in The Land of Little Rain. Visual elements, by which I mean primarily the illustrations but also layout, might well be called, as Schwind calls the Benda illustrations of My Ántonia, a "silent supplement" to the text. Unlike its magazine version, the book was set with abundant white space and was adorned with pen-and-ink drawings, most but not all of them narrative in nature, that is, directly linked to the text. E. Boyd Smith, the artist who did the drawings, was a well-established and prolific illustrator and would later do the illustrations for Austin's The Flock and The Ford as well.[7]

We recall that Cather initially meant to have head-and-tail pieces and emphatically did not want a frontispiece (wc to Greenslet, 18 October 1917). The Smith illustrations of The Land of Little Rain are of two sorts, full-page line drawings and head-and- tail pieces. Choosing just one of many possible examples of the latter (from p. 15), we might note how it shows the operation of a precise eye, an eye having keen powers of observation (see fig. 12). In its precision, this drawing, like the other small drawings in The Land of Little Rain, stands as a correlative for Austin's prose in this book (though not all of her writing): precise, warm, and personal, tending to address the reader directly in the second person. It is a style that may remind us of Cather's in Ántonia.

Headpiece from The Land of Little Rain, chapter 2Fig. 12. Headpiece from The Land of Little Rain, chapter 2

It is Smith's full-page and most-of-page drawings, however, that are most strikingly comparable to the Benda illustrations of My Ántonia. The first is one of a single crow or raven sitting on a cow skull with empty desert space all around, a few wisps of dust devils, and a distant horizon indicated simply by a couple of lines (4, see fig. 13). Like the Benda drawings, this one is placed relatively low on the page, allowing it to open up into white space above—an indication of a big sky. A big sky characterizes, indeed, all of the larger drawings in Little Rain. Another good example is one of a vanishing row of fence posts with one bird in the sky and one bird catching a little shade in the foreground (10, see fig. 14). Notice, as well, the drawing showing the litter left in the land by people, a smoking campfire or perhaps cigarette, and a single disgusted-looking bird (38, see fig. 15). Here and in the one that follows, showing a "pocket hunter" camping for the night, with his campfire, two cooking implements, and two burros (53), there is no horizon line at all (see fig. 16). This is true bareness, a true minimalist style. I would stress, again, the big sky that is so evident in the Benda illustrations of My Ántonia.

Fence postsFig. 14. Fence posts Crow on skullFig. 13. Crow on skull

In 1926, when she and Greenslet were contemplating a new edition of Ántonia (the edition in which the preface was reduced), Cather said that the Benda illustrations were one of the few instances she could think of in which pictures materially assisted the narrative (wc to Greenslet, 15 February 1926). That is, they were essentially a part of the text. Here, again from The Land of Little Rain, is a remarkable instance in which the line drawing is actually interwoven with the text (21), so that the two, picture and text, demonstrably assist each other (see fig. 17). The words printed on the page become a part of the landscape separating the coyote from the rising moon that he looks at apprehensively over his shoulder.

15. LitterFig. 15. Litter

My conjecture that the original source of Cather's conception for the visual "'silent' supplement" to My Ántonia lay in the illustrations of Austin's The Land of Little Rain is based entirely on readerly and visual comparison, though bolstered by biographical evidence and a considerable archive establishing her intentions. Demonstrably, Cather and Austin experienced the natural world in much the same sorts of ways. They shared habits of hiking, close observation of plant life, and the use of notebooks to record their field observations. For all their differences as novelists, if we compare Cather's writing with Austin's in The Land of Little Rain, we see a similar minimalism of prose style at work, a style keenly focused on selected details, rendered in terse descriptive language. The two books are similar in their employment of illustrations of a precise, minimalist kind: pen-and-ink line drawings making notable use of empty space to isolate details and to suggest the West's big sky.

Pocket hunter campingFig. 16. Pocket hunter camping CoyoteFig. 17. Coyote

If my conjecture about the impact of Smith's drawings on Cather's vision for the illustrations of her own book is correct, the critical judgment of at least one art historian that Smith "had few followers and made no major impact on American illustration" (Best 28) may merit revision. Another implication is a further expansion of our understanding of the aesthetic sisterhood between Cather and Austin, as well as perhaps an increased estimate of the importance to Cather of visual experience itself. And perhaps, too, it would evoke a more thorough study of the Harold von Schmidt illustrations for the second edition of Death Comes for the Archbishop, which, as Mignon has established (520), were also developed with active involvement by Cather. It is a linkage, then, of considerable significance and one that I hope may yet be conclusively established through archival records not presently known. Not only does Smith's beautiful work in the drawings for The Land of Little Rain extend beyond itself into the work of Benda—transformed, for this project, from his usual heavily shaded style—but the combination of Smith's drawings and Austin's style is carried forward into the minimalist aesthetic that would characterize much of Cather's fiction and which she would formulate in "The Novel Démeublé." It was an aesthetic that, as the notes in her field guide to wildflowers demonstrate, derived in large measure from her own visual acuity, plus what might be called a highly developed eye-hand coordination: a precise writerly hand working in perfect coordination with a precise eye for detail.

NOTES

I want to express my gratitude to Molly McBride Lasco for her assistance in locating information about W. T. Benda and E. Boyd Smith.

 1. WC to Carrie Miner Sherwood, 11 February [prob. 1919], Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial, Red Cloud, Nebraska. (Go back.)
 2. WC to Dorothy Canfield, 6 July 1902, Bailey-Howe Library, University of Vermont. (Go back.)
 3. See Schwind, especially n. 4; also Samuels and Samuels, cited by Schwind. The letters to Ferris Greenslet and Roger L. Scaife on which I am drawing for the production history of My Ántonia are at the Houghton Library, Harvard University, bMS Am 1925 (341). (Go back.)
 4. Benda's illustrations had also appeared in Century, Scribner's, and Cosmopolitan, as well as in books. (Go back.)
 5. Archival evidence of Cather's and Austin's personal acquaintance is to be found at the Houghton Library and at the Huntington Library. T. M. Pearce's edition of selected letters of Austin, Literary America, prints a short letter to Austin from Cather. See McNall; Porter; and Stout, "Willa Cather and Mary Austin." Regarding biographical parallels, see Gelfant; also Stout, Through the Window, Out the Door. (Go back.)
 6. WC to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, 23 June [1917?], Alderman Library, University of Virginia. (Go back.)
 7. Surprisingly, in a letter written in 1907, when Austin was making arrangements for publication of Lost Borders, she wrote, "I sincerely hope you will not insist upon illustrating it. I am strongly prejudiced against illustrated fiction except for children"; MA to W. I. Booth, 27 April 1907, Houghton Library, Harvard, bMS Am 1925 (83). (Go back.)

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