Edwin Thumboo Essay - Critical Essays

Thumboo, Edwin


Edwin Thumboo 1933-

Singaporean poet, critic, and editor.

Thumboo is considered the unofficial poet laureate of the Republic of Singapore. Since the early 1970s he has had a profound influence over the course of literature in his native country. His nationalistic poem “Ulysses on the Merlion” is deemed by several commentators as a landmark in Singaporean literary history.

Biographical Information

Thumboo was born in Singapore November 22, 1933. He was educated at Victoria School and attended the University of Singapore. In 1967 he became a lecturer at the University of Singapore. In 1979 he became a full professor and the head of the department of English language and literature. He also served as the dean of the faculty of arts and social sciences until late 1991. He is the editor of the periodical Poetry Singapore and two anthologies of Singaporean and Malaysian poetry, The Flowering Tree and The Second Tongue.

Major Works

Thumboo's verse is characterized by courageous political and social statements. In particular, his poetry emphasizes nationalistic issues apropos of an emerging nation dealing with the impact of years of British colonialism and a diverse multiracial and multilingual immigrant culture. In poetry collections such as Rib of Earth and Gods Can Die, he examines the power of language and the danger and responsibilities of power in a country still searching for an identity. His most famous poem, “Ulysses on the Merlion,” utilizes the classic Greek wanderer, Ulysses, to explore issues of the poet's relationship with his homeland. Recognized as the first attempt to forge Singapore's history in poetic form, the piece is viewed as a crucial step both in Thumboo's personal history and in the history of Singaporean literature.

Critical Reception

Thumboo is esteemed for his contribution to the nascent English-language literary tradition of Singapore. Critics have praised his ability to depict the struggles of his native land as it attempts to define itself after years of colonial rule. His exploration of Singapore's problems, complexities, and multidimensional cultures have been considered integral to establishing an independent literary and political identity. Yet a few critics have noted his lack of poetic development and an inattention to stylistic issues in his work.

Principal Works

Rib of Earth 1956

Gods Can Die 1977

“Ulysses by the Merlion” 1979

Third Map: New and Selected Poems 1993

The Flowering Tree: Selected Writings from Singapore/Malaysia [editor] 1970

The Second Tongue: An Anthology of Poems from Malaysia and Singapore [editor] 1976


Kirpal Singh (review date 1978)

SOURCE: “A People's Poet,” in World Literature Written in English, Vol. XVII, No. 2, November, 1978, pp. 598-603.

[In the following laudatory review of Gods Can Die, Singh deems Thumboo “undoubtedly the most powerful voice of literary consciousness in his part of the globe.”]

Those of us who are familiar with the literary scene of Singapore will applaud the appearance of Gods Can Die. Edwin Thumboo is today undoubtedly the most powerful voice of literary consciousness in that part of the globe, and it is gratifying to note that after a lapse of twenty-one years he has once again decided to put his poems together in a book. Rib of Earth (1956), his first collection of poems, revealed a poetic talent rare in one using an acquired language to express himself. Over the years Thumboo has not only ably fulfilled the promise so clearly shown in that first volume, but has greatly refined his style to offer a mature poetry which depicts forcefully the environment in which he writes. In these days when almost any literature coming out of former colonies is greeted with aplomb, it is necessary to be able to discriminate the really worthwhile from the merely impressionistic. This is a point which cannot be over-emphasised: as Lee Tzu Pheng (herself an eminent poet) writes in her Foreword to Gods Can Die,

Much of what passes for poetry nowadays, even though offered with the most genuine intentions and zeal, does little for the state of the art, and even less for its reception by an unconvinced public. The situation is especially permissive in those countries now recognised as possessing an emergent literature in English. Confidence in the authenticity of English as a literary medium where English is the second tongue has bred attitudes which equate this authenticity with a general license for admitting almost anything attempted in English as “creative.” Indeed, in our enthusiasm, we have perhaps neglected to be critical.

Thumboo's poetry is, perhaps, best defined as being a poetry which sensitively expresses what the rational mind reflects upon. Nothing is taken for granted; even words, the very materials with which the poet fashions his thinking, are critically examined and commented upon:

Words are dangerous, especially
The simple kind you leave behind for others,
For undesirable relatives and assorted purposes.
They are understood simply, edited,
Taken with a kind of air, a careful disregard:
Their plainness complicates.

(“Words,” p. 1)

When the critical eye turns itself to issues of a social/political nature, the resulting commentary is poignant with the awareness that the existing state of affairs leaves much to be desired:

These days are taut, suspicious.
Uncertain of itself, the air
Blooms in mis-shapen brown.
My trees turn green without relief:
Soft and black, your hair
Is now the colour of the town.
In the room they speak of social harm,
Talk deep into the night,
Beneath the surface of a modern calm,
Prejudice sits tight.
Evening rides upon a pin
Of light, congeals.

(“Colour,” p. 21)

And when it comes to questioning the ethics involved in a culture-exchange designed for the betterment of the recipient country, Thumboo can be severe in his rebuke of those who adopt the superior pose. In “Fifteen Years After,” written upon the death of his own teacher-friend Shamus Frazer (the author of The Crocodile Dies Twice), Thumboo admonishes those expatriates whose involvement with their work is superficial and laments the loss of those who, like Frazer, had the interests of the natives at heart:

But teacher and friend, white man,
What are...

(The entire section is 1572 words.)

Edwin Thumboo with Peter Nazareth (interview date 1979)

SOURCE: An interview in World Literature Written in English, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, April, 1979, pp. 151-71.

[In the following interview, Thumboo discusses his use of language, the influences on his poetry, and the political and social situation in Singapore.]

[Nazareth]: Edwin, I am going to read you something. Let's see if you recognize the poem:

The recipients of the education,
the English educated
knew their place.
They had
and a certain status
and a fair living,
never really near the centre of power
where policies affecting their society were
mainly instruments and functionaries,
their outlook crippled
unless they had simultaneously maintained a
broad contact
                    with their own language and

[Thumboo]: That isn't a poem! It's from a lecture I gave at Singapore's Nanyang University in late 1975!

Do you agree that there is a poetic quality in these lines until the very last portion, when it's clearly prose?

Perhaps. The idiom of contemporary poetry has reached a point where it is very close to prose. But the point I was making in that lecture lies very close to our fundamental thinking. The history of the last two hundred years in our part of the world was made by colonial incursion. As a reaction to that, we must re-think, re-write, and reorientate our history. But history deals with large entities, large problems. In the meantime, people live. But what I was and what I am really concerned with, is the social history: the decisions and events within families. Not with governments or other centres of formal power.

Is language one of the things you have been very conscious about? The colonial inheritance, and the fact that the English language itself has carried a colonial burden with it? You have lectured on this, and deal with the question in your introduction to The Second Tongue: An Anthology of Poetry from Malaysia and Singapore. Are you trying to sneak poetry into prose, or, to put it the other way round, are youtrying to write a poetry which people are not awareis poetry, except at certain points when it rises to a poetic form?

Yes and no. Yes because when you give a lecture on a crucial problem which the audience itself is living through, you attempt to put in as much substance as possible, embodied in language that is intense, resonant, suggestive. No, because the poetry written by the younger people today seems to be very much the kind you find elsewhere, in the other English-speaking parts of the world. It is poetry with an urban setting, the poetry that inspects, that comes back to the position of the individual in society, his reactions, his emotional curve as it were, all in a rapidly urbanising society. In our part of the world, it is important to stress that contemporary history, the great flux of events, the forces of change move rapidly, are concertina-ed, so that within a period of ten years you get the equivalent experience of change and dislocation which in other parts of the world have taken as much as four hundred years to run their course. Within Singapore, you find that the world-views, attitudes to social, political, economic issues, questions about education, and of an emergent culture, have evolved considerably in the last ten years. You find the thinking of at least four generations evolving within a span of ten years—because we live at a time and in a situation where change is the order of things. That gradual evolution and the passing down of ideas, their orderly and slow revision, occur under hot house conditions in Singapore.

You said in your introduction to The Second Tongue, “but language must serve, not overwhelm if the Commonwealth writer is to succeed.” You yourself have served multiple roles in Singapore. You've been a civil servant, very much involved in the process of change. Then you moved into the academic world: you're an academic, you're a teacher. You are also a poet. You are trying to use the language to help bring about change rather than just be overwhelmed by their change. How do you see your use of language as a bureaucrat? As a teacher? How is your use of language changed when you concentrate on your poetic function?

You know, this is the first time, really, that I have been confronted by this very clear kind of analysis regarding the role of language. The language of the civil servant is disarmingly simple. After all, civil servants think of different ways of saying “yes,” different ways of saying “no,” backed up by ordinances, by-laws, and so on; this is their basic function. The excitement in civil servicing is when you meet with a problem that lies outside the “yes and no” kind of situation. But basically a civil servant takes a decision and explains it. If the decision is “yes,” perhaps less explanation is needed. When the decision is “no,” then, as a civil servant, as a functionary of government, ultimately responsible to the people, he has to explain why it's a “no.” We inherited a pretty solid civil service from the British, and we have extended and modified that civil servicing tradition. In the Singapore context where you have some twenty-three languages and dialects among three ethnic communities—with perhaps a fourth one, which consists of Eurasians—the impartial use of a civil service, and therefore the impartial rhetoric of a civil service, is extremely important. Because, as you know, Asian societies are by and large chauvinistic societies, and within the chauvinism, there is nepotism. Brother knows brother, knows uncle, who knows grand-uncle or whatever, and the network of power extends. An impartial civil service can break through that kind of tradition by insisting upon, and projecting, and gaining confidence, by its strict impartiality. And that impartiality comes from a civil service. The British civil service, for better or worse, was impartial—if nothing else. When I say “impartial” I mean impartial in the day-to-day things. The British were quite capable of making adjustments to the civil service within a colonial structure, to support that structure. The civil service we inherited was a thriving civil service, and our government, amongst the most sensible in Third World countries, maintained this tradition of impartiality so that the rhetoric of the civil servant meant that you explained, that you justified, that you educated.

The second function you mentioned, the function of teacher—this ties in very readily with the Asian “guru” tradition. As a teacher, one is interested not merely in educating people but also in producing, in engendering via this process, people who will not only succeed, but who develop beyond their earlier selves. Language, here, was the freest tool of education available, in that it was the most personal on the one hand and the most public on the other. You were, really, educating people not only to take over, but also to extend, to consolidate that vision of which we are part.

But for a university teacher, the use of language is very broad. At one extreme, when it comes to the teaching of literature in English—and by that I mean not merely Shakespeare but also Ngugi and, when I get back, perhaps Peter Nazareth—you are using language in the most total sense possible: language not only as a critical instrument for the purposes of the discipline of literature, but also using language creatively, because in a Third World country you just can't spout the kind of orthodox, Leavisite criticism which a teacher in a redbrick British university can. For us, language, literature, is not merely a discipline; it is too close to the processes of formation that are going on.

Turning to the third mode of using language, the creative one as against the critical: the first point I would like to make is that every creator must also be a critic, of a very personal kind. This explains why a poem, a short story, a novel, goes through different drafts—because any creative writer who is serious about his craft is his own most severe critic. But the criticism there, obviously, is tailored to his needs as a writer, to meet his particular slant to the language, the genres he picks, the function he sees for himself. Let me clarify—I would love to write intense, internalized, interior-landscape poetry. That is probably my forte. In fact, a recent review of Gods Can Die in Pacific Quarterly talks about how as my poetry develops—or, as it changes, if the word “develops” seems to be a value judgement implying “improvement” all the time—he notes—the reviewer—that the early poems are lyrical, and the later ones more public. This is not because of a choice I made, as poet. It is a choice as a poet in a particular setting. I would rather write the poetry of interior monologue. That's how I started, and I ought to have developed in that direction. But a poet in Singapore, and especially someone from my generation, has certain responsibilities. I recall, with a certain acuteness, the kind of anti-colonial feeling which was most vivid—as a pro-nationalist feeling rather than as an anti-colonial feeling. I recall that period—it has left its mark on me. The poet here has a certain public function. The poet in London has his preoccupations. If a novelist in America wants to talk about the problems of lining up for bread, that's his business. I am not suggesting how he should write.

By the same token, I would like to exercise what I feel is my function in my society, and from that function stems certain attitudes to language, to structure, to the purpose of poetry. And once you define the purpose of poetry, your poetry takes on a certain form. The generation after mine, those who started writing in the sixties, seem to have a concern for social issues as well as for slightly more personal ones. Questions of personal identity, “How do I live?,” “What are the problems that confront me as an individual?” suggested themselves with greater strength than before. And the younger people, in their teens or early twenties, are now writing a very powerful kind of personal poetry, the poetry of “I.” That's a long spiel, Peter, because your question was very fundamental. It was necessary to make these discriminations. Ultimately, all the modes of language must integrate because they come from a single consciousness. You made a point in conversation with regard to my criticism—that a weakness in my criticism is its excessive concern with the critical terminology foisted upon us as a part of the discipline of study in English literature. I take that point, and in fact, perhaps instinctively, I have moved away from that position. But I needed a clear statement of the kind that you made, because I am now sufficiently conscious of it to be vigilant.

I should modify that by saying I observed a struggle in you to overcome that inheritance. You try and keep a lid on your emotions. In your poetry, if you express emotion, it is by the way you order facts. You appear just to objectively describe a person or a situation, and it might look neutral: but the very organisation of facts convinces. It is the opposite of declamation. Do you consider your style to be very much a response to the Singaporean situation, the fact that, as you said in one of your poems, “Singapore is just a boil on the Melanesian face”?

Again you've touched on a very complex question, which the poetry, perhaps, disguises. What you are asking ultimately, is, what makes a poet write the way he does? A poet writes because he feels he has something to say. So first there is his vision. His vision is constructed through a series of influences: his teachers, his elders, his peers, through the kind of problems they define for him and which he comes to accept, then elaborate as vital in his society. These could arise from the details of political, social, and cultural to linguistic issues and the broad themes suggested by them—in other words, response from the heart to the capillaries. For him it is a very conscious business because this is not just part of his poetry, but part of his consciousness as a person. And whether you like it or not, there is always a person behind the poet.

Apart from this, there is his own analysis based on these influences, his own analysis of the immediate situation shared by a sense of historical continuity. In addition, there is the choice of idiom, of form, of tone. You know the English language as well as I do. We know that it is capable of expressing the most intensely inner personal feelings to the most broadly public ones. We can think of examples in English literature—we have been victims as well as inheritors of English literature, Peter, you and I. We can give examples from Donne, Dryden, and others, to show the very diverse use of the English language for different poetic purposes, and behind each of which there is a different set of assumptions, a different set of interests, a different set of purposes. For someone writing in Singapore, intense personal poetry of the ingrowing toenail kind—you know, I can't resist metaphors with a toehold because I suffered from one when I was a kid—that kind of poetry does have its place. But, given our situation as a developing country—perhaps “developed,” in some sense, depending on how you define “developed” or “developing”—that kind of poetry addresses itself to a very narrow section of your—and our—readers. To begin with, in Singapore, if you wrote in English ten years ago, you would have had about fifty readers; twenty years ago you would have had thirty readers, and five years ago you would have had about two hundred. Today you have at least five hundred readers. And this figure, based on the sale of books of poems published in Singapore, is rapidly increasing. In other words, if the poet is aware, if he is concerned with readership, if he is concerned with the fact that others should read his poetry, this will inevitably influence him, If he wants to reach people, if he wants to define, if he wants to empathize his poetry with the kind of problems which are dominant in his society, then his style has to range into the public.

Why, you ask, do my poems appear to be poems of fact? What I attempt to do in them is to project a point of view, as you quite rightly say, in the selection of the facts, in the arrangement of the facts, but I hope that in the end—I am writing poetry. By starting as someone who wrote poetry which was lyrical, I have always been concerned with form, with idiom, with image, with metaphor, with structure. That, in a sense has saved me.

While I write poems that have public themes, I hope I create poems, and not propaganda. The propaganda is implicit, it is part of the poetry, but it is the poetry, I hope, that persuades, and not the propaganda. This is one of the fundamental issues in Third World writing.

You said in your introduction to The Second Tongue that Singapore lacks a social history. In several of your poems, as well as in several poems you have selected for the anthology, I notice a description of people as they are in Singapore—individuals, sometimes groups, bringing to the attention of other groups the existence of these people around them, whom they don't even know, don't notice. Is this a very quiet move towards nation-building?

Again you are right, Peter. I can draw two conclusions which are perhaps complementary. You've obviously read my poems and got into them; you're bringing to bear on them the kind of understanding you have of Third World writing. You are right. As I said earlier, we have the kind of history that relates to events and treaties. The larger history, the public history—we must have that. We are reorientating approaches to make sure that they no longer reflect a School of Oriental Studies point of view, the London point of view, the Eurocentric point of view. We are not the only people in the world doing this today. I think it's being done in Africa, in the West Indies—Eric Williams' book about the West Indies, for instance, is fundamental. It's been quietly done, by implication, in the novels of Wilson Harris. It's been done to some extent in the novels emerging from India. It is a creative correction of points of view. But for us in Singapore? We are a nation of migrants, really. We are, in that sense, an artificial creation, but an artificial creation that is absolutely vital and viable, because of the geographical situation of Singapore. It is an important place, geographically. So the only thing we have to do—in a sense a very massive thing—is to make sure we emerge—as a people. The people who came to Singapore from say 1819 up to perhaps just before the Second World War—there was a small influx after the Second World War—had to function as an economic unit. When you are a colony ruled by the British, the various plural societies function by and large within their own ambit, within their own parameters. Then the Chinese lived, on the whole, amongst themselves, the Indians lived amongst themselves, and so did the Malays. The Indians have their temples, they have their religious ceremonies, and so on. Their social life was based largely on an export version of what happened in South India; so also with the Chinese. Their social history, therefore was lived but not recorded. There was no one to record the social history and in any case, people who are migrants are conscious of their history in their homelands, and not so much in their places of exile. They didn't see themselves, their lives in Singapore, as being important, as being potentially unique because they always took their sense of direction—in custom, in politics, in fashion, in taste—from their homeland, either through a continuing relationship or through a recall, through mythology beliefs and prejudices of the society in their motherlands. For us, now that we have become an independent nation, a republic—we have our UN representative in New York—we need to go back, really to look at our historical as well as our social past.

What is social history, really? Social history is not history consisting of traumatic events but a history of the family, of ordinary people, and literature is made out of the lives and experiences of ordinary people. This kind of historical continuity we must attempt to construct. The British of course weren't interested at all. The various ethnic groups weren't really interested in their lives in Singapore because to some extent the feeling of being exiles, the feeling of being dominated by and attached to the motherland, persisted to at least the mid-fifties. I say “at least” because the attitude to your country, to the land, to the place you were born in, varies from generation to generation. Those who were born in Singapore were more inclined to look at Singapore as their home. But even there the generalization needs to be qualified. I won't go into it because it is a very complex issue.

But social history is important because out of it, you construct your types—which are necessary, because if you don't have them, you can't see the evolution in your own society, and therefore your writing can only be confined to the contemporary, devoid of a historical perspective. The historical perspective is important for us because, after all, Singapore is such a small place, because it is modernising so rapidly, becoming a kind of international city. We are in danger of losing our historical hinterland.

You mentioned Wilson Harris and the question of a hinterland. I notice in your poems the reflection of a Singaporean problem which is also a Third World problem. In “Ahmad”, you talk of “Groping for a neutral gentleness”—a kind of hinterland of common humanity as opposed to a hinterland of a glorious Chinese or Indian past, which is a rigid type of hinterland. But the connection with Wilson Harris is one of similarity and dissimilarity. Singapore is a small city-state, as you said, with just over two million people, whereas in Guyana you have less than a million people, with nearly all (except for the Amerindians) on the coast, with a vast physical hinterland behind. The physical problem for Wilson Harris and for you would then be different, while the psychic and metaphorical problems seem to be similar.

You are right in saying that the psychic and metaphorical problems are similar. When I use the word “hinterland,” I'm really using it as a portmanteau word. It sums up a great number of vital things. By “hinterland” I mean a culture, a past, also a sense of geography, a sense of placein which myths have grown, in which legends have grown, in which people have lived and have gone through a rich body of experiences. For us the “hinterland” is curious, because it is both place and idea. In Singapore, we can't have place; Wilson Harris can have place as well as idea. So what do we have? We have been told again and again that we belong to the great Asian traditions. There is some truth in this, although I would like to modify it because basically, as I said in my introduction, migrants are drawn from the lower classes so they aren't the best cultural examples. What migrants bring to a new country is an idea of what they are, either as Indians or Chinese, and a popular idea of what their past, their inheritance, represents. Because we are small, we need to construct this psychic hinterland. We know we can't have a physical one. The facts of modern politics have overtaken us. It was possible at one point to refer to Malaysia. Conrad does so, and Wallace—the great biologist after whom the Wallace Line was named—can refer to “Malaysia” and mean the whole area. But we can't, because modern politics has overtaken us. We are physically an island of 224 square miles—226 square miles at low tide. So the kind of “hinterland” I refer to is not straight from history, but is the psychic inheritance which anybody in India, perhaps in Japan, or even in an oral society in Africa, has, and which he can carry with him as part of his consciousness; and not merely his consciousness, but also as a living part of the language, the emotions, the social institutions. In other words, the whole fabric of what we consider both the background to a culture and the very culture itself. We are busy constructing a common, shared culture out of the very...

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Kirpal Singh (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Toward a Singapore Classic: Edwin Thumboo's ‘Ulysses by the Merlion’,” in The Literary Criterion, Vol. XV, No. 2, 1980, pp. 74-87.

[In the following essay, Singh asserts that Thumboo's “‘Ulysses by the Merlion’ while not itself being a classic, paves the way for a Singapore classic.”]

I have sailed many waters,
Skirted islands of fire, emerged
From bouts with Circe
Who loved the squeal of pigs;
Passed Scylla and Charybdis,
Moved seven years with Calypso,
Heaved in battle against the gods.
Beneath it all
I kept faith with Ithaca, travelled,
Travelled and travelled,
Suffering much, enjoying a little;
Met strange people singing
New myths; made myths...

(The entire section is 4496 words.)

Edwin Thumboo with Peter Nazareth (interview date 1982)

SOURCE: An interview in Pacific Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1982, pp. 93-101.

[In the following interview, Thumboo considers his literary criticism, the relationship between oral tradition and written poetry, and the role of myth in Singapore.]

[Nazareth]: You have been of the first generation of Singaporean poets, allowing for the fact that the term ‘first generation’ is tricky. How is it that you have continued to write and grow whileyour contemporaries fell by the wayside?

[Thumboo]: In a small place like Singapore, the so-called intellectuals—I use that word with great hesitation: the ‘intellectual’ as defined by the very...

(The entire section is 3921 words.)

Jan B. Gordon (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “The ‘Second Tongue’ Myth: English Poetry in Polylingual Singapore,” in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 15, No. 4, October, 1984, pp. 41-65.

[In the following essay, Gordon traces the history of bilingual literature in Singapore and surveys the poetry of Thumboo, Lee Tzu Pheng, and Arthur Yap.]

“It is unlikely that art forms indigenous to Singapore will be developed in the near future.”

—Lee Kuan Yew in interview with Agence French Presse, 22 June 1979.

“Every developing country has instituted some program, overtly or covertly,...

(The entire section is 8802 words.)

Kirpal Singh and Ooi Boo Eng (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “The Poetry of Edwin Thumboo: A Study in Development,” in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 24, No. 2, Autumn, 1984, pp. 454-59.

[In the following essay, Singh and Eng trace Thumboo's poetic development, contending that “many of the qualities which gave the initial poems their power and their beauty continue to manifest themselves in his latest work.”]

It is always difficult to study the process by which a poet develops, because the development is never wholly linear. Preoccupations which may largely be the centre of later work are often anticipated in the beginning: the creative impulse may undergo important modifications but it usually retains...

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Chin Woon Ping (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “A Native Worlding: Decolonisation and ‘Race’ in the Poetry of Edwin Thumboo,” in Perceiving Other Worlds, edited by Edwin Thumboo, Times Academic Press, 1991, pp. 269-82.

[In the following essay, Ping assesses Thumboo's attempts to break free of the influence of British colonialism in his verse.]

If the problem of the twentieth-century, as W.E.B. Dubois has written, is the “problem of the color line”,1 then it must be especially true for Malaysia and Singapore, where so many communal groups are perched precariously together in a system of balanced pluralism and where ethnic differences are politicised, sometimes sharpened to the edge of...

(The entire section is 3928 words.)