Pepys Diary erasure project

Since January 1, 2013, a daily exercise in erasure poetry based on the 17th-century Diary of Samuel Pepys. Why this work? Its language is admirably concrete, with recurring words and turns of phrase shaped by the exigencies of Pepys’ original shorthand. In thought and content it stands at the beginning of the modern era: the first truly confessional piece of literature by a man equally fascinated by religion and science, and whose curiosity encompassed everything from music-making and theater to mathematics, accounting, politics, fashion, and carnal pleasures. And last but not least, the 1899 Wheatley edition is available online in a website that is really a model for how to present literature on the web. It was my desire to read it day by day that led to this project, which I view not as erasure but as discovery—a kind of deep (mis)reading. From a secret diary, these are the secret poems hidden even from the author himself.

Up, and it being a brave morning, with a gally to Woolwich, and there both at the Ropeyarde and the other yarde did much business, and thence to Greenwich to see Mr. Pett and others value the carved work of the “Henrietta” (God knows in an ill manner for the King), and so to Deptford, and there viewed Sir W. Petty’s vessel; which hath an odd appearance, but not such as people do make of it, for I am of the opinion that he would never have discoursed so much of it, if it were not better than other vessels, and so I believe that he was abused the other day, as he is now, by tongues that I am sure speak before they know anything good or bad of her. I am sorry to find his ingenuity discouraged so.
So home, reading all the way a good book, and so home to dinner, and after dinner a lesson on the globes to my wife, and so to my office till 10 or 11 o’clock at night, and so home to supper and to bed.

another yard
another carved man

such people make better vessels

as abused as tongues that speak
before they know


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 22 January 1663/64.

Up, and after sending my wife to my aunt Wight’s to get a place to see Turner hanged, I to the office, where we sat all the morning, and at noon going to the ‘Change; and seeing people flock in the City, I enquired, and found that Turner was not yet hanged. And so I went among them to Leadenhall Street, at the end of Lyme Street, near where the robbery was done; and to St. Mary Axe, where he lived. And there I got for a shilling to stand upon the wheel of a cart, in great pain, above an houre before the execution was done; he delaying the time by long discourses and prayers one after another, in hopes of a reprieve; but none came, and at last was flung off the ladder in his cloake. A comely-looked man he was, and kept his countenance to the end: I was sorry to see him. It was believed there were at least 12 or 14,000 people in the street. So I home all in a sweat, and dined by myself, and after dinner to the Old James, and there found Sir W. Rider and Mr. Cutler at dinner, and made a second dinner with them, and anon came Mr. Bland and Custos, and Clerke, and so we fell to the business of reference, and upon a letter from Mr. Povy to Sir W. Rider and I telling us that the King is concerned in it, we took occasion to fling off the business from off our shoulders and would have nothing to do with it, unless we had power from the King or Commissioners of Tangier, and I think it will be best for us to continue of that mind, and to have no hand, it being likely to go against the King.
Thence to the Coffee-house, and heard the full of Turner’s discourse on the cart, which was chiefly to clear himself of all things laid to his charge but this fault, for which he now suffers, which he confesses. He deplored the condition of his family, but his chief design was to lengthen time, believing still a reprieve would come, though the sheriff advised him to expect no such thing, for the King was resolved to grant none. After that I had good discourse with a pretty young merchant with mighty content. So to my office and did a little business, and then to my aunt Wight’s to fetch my wife home, where Dr. Burnett did tell me how poorly the sheriffs did endeavour to get one jewell returned by Turner, after he was convicted, as a due to them, and not to give it to Mr. Tryan, the true owner, but ruled against them, to their great dishonour. Though they plead it might be another jewell for ought they know and not Tryan’s. After supper home, and my wife tells me mighty stories of my uncle’s fond and kind discourses to her to-day, which makes me confident that he has thoughts of kindness for us, he repeating his desire for her to be with child, for it cannot enter into my head that he should have any unworthy thoughts concerning her. After doing some business at my office, I home to supper, prayers, and to bed.

seeing people flock in the city
on the leaden street

I wheel above
in all that nothing

clear of sign or chant
but to a child


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Thursday 21 January 1663/64.

Up and by coach to my Lord Sandwich’s, and after long staying till his coming down (he not sending for me up, but it may be he did not know I was there), he came down, and I walked with him to the Tennis Court, and there left him, seeing the King play. At his lodgings this morning there came to him Mr. W. Montague’s fine lady, which occasioned my Lord’s calling me to her about some business for a friend of hers preferred to be a midshipman at sea. My Lord recommended the whole matter to me. She is a fine confident lady, I think, but not so pretty as I once thought her. My Lord did also seal a lease for the house he is now taking in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which stands him in 250 per annum rent.
Thence by water to my brother’s, whom I find not well in bed, sicke, they think, of a consumption, and I fear he is not well, but do not complain, nor desire to take anything. From him I visited Mr. Honiwood, who is lame, and to thank him for his visit to me the other day, but we were both abroad. So to Mr. Commander’s in Warwicke Lane, to speak to him about drawing up my will, which he will meet me about in a day or two. So to the ‘Change and walked home, thence with Sir Richard Ford, who told me that Turner is to be hanged to-morrow, and with what impudence he hath carried out his trial; but that last night, when he brought him newes of his death, he began to be sober and shed some tears, and he hopes will die a penitent; he having already confessed all the thing, but says it was partly done for a joke, and partly to get an occasion of obliging the old man by his care in getting him his things again, he having some hopes of being the better by him in his estate at his death.
Home to dinner, and after dinner my wife and I by water, which we have not done together many a day, that is not since last summer, but the weather is now very warm, and left her at Axe Yard, and I to White Hall, and meeting Mr. Pierce walked with him an hour in the Matted Gallery; among other things he tells me that my Lady Castlemaine is not at all set by by the King, but that he do doat upon Mrs. Stewart only; and that to the leaving of all business in the world, and to the open slighting of the Queene; that he values not who sees him or stands by him while he dallies with her openly; and then privately in her chamber below, where the very sentrys observe his going in and out; and that so commonly, that the Duke or any of the nobles, when they would ask where the King is, they will ordinarily say, “Is the King above, or below?” meaning with Mrs. Stewart.
That the King do not openly disown my Lady Castlemaine, but that she comes to Court; but that my Lord FitzHarding and the Hambletons,1 and sometimes my Lord Sandwich, they say, have their snaps at her. But he says my Lord Sandwich will lead her from her lodgings in the darkest and obscurest manner, and leave her at the entrance into the Queene’s lodgings, that he might be the least observed.
That the Duke of Monmouth the King do still doat on beyond measure, insomuch that the King only, the Duke of York, and Prince Rupert, and the Duke of Monmouth, do now wear deep mourning, that is, long cloaks, for the Duchesse of Savoy; so that he mourns as a Prince of the Blood, while the Duke of York do no more, and all the nobles of the land not so much; which gives great offence, and he says the Duke of York do consider. But that the Duke of York do give himself up to business, and is like to prove a noble Prince; and so indeed I do from my heart think he will.
He says that it is believed, as well as hoped, that care is taken to lay up a hidden treasure of money by the King against a bad day. Pray God it be so! but I should be more glad that the King himself would look after business, which it seems he do not in the least.
By and by came by Mr. Coventry, and so we broke off; and he and I took a turn or two and so parted, and then my Lord Sandwich came upon me, to speak with whom my business of coming again to-night to this ende of the town chiefly was, in order to the seeing in what manner he received me, in order to my inviting him to dinner to my house, but as well in the morning as now, though I did wait upon him home and there offered occasion of talk with him, yet he treated me, though with respect, yet as a stranger, without any of the intimacy or friendship which he used to do, and which I fear he will never, through his consciousness of his faults, ever do again. Which I must confess do trouble me above anything in the world almost, though I neither do need at present nor fear to need to be so troubled, nay, and more, though I do not think that he would deny me any friendship now if I did need it, but only that he has not the face to be free with me, but do look upon me as a remembrancer of his former vanity, and an espy upon his present practices, for I perceive that Pickering to-day is great with him again, and that he has done a great courtesy for Mr. Pierce, the chirurgeon, to a good value, though both these and none but these did I mention by name to my Lord in the business which has caused all this difference between my Lord and me. However, I am resolved to forbear my laying out my money upon a dinner till I see him in a better posture, and by grave and humble, though high deportment, to make him think I do not want him, and that will make him the readier to admit me to his friendship again, I believe the soonest of anything but downright impudence, and thrusting myself, as others do, upon him, which yet I cannot do, not [nor] will not endeavour.
So home, calling with my wife to see my brother again, who was up, and walks up and down the house pretty well, but I do think he is in a consumption.
Home, troubled in mind for these passages with my Lord, but am resolved to better my case in my business to make my stand upon my owne legs the better and to lay up as well as to get money, and among other ways I will have a good fleece out of Creed’s coat ere it be long, or I will have a fall.
So to my office and did some business, and then home to supper and to bed, after I had by candlelight shaved myself and cut off all my beard clear, which will make my worke a great deal the less in shaving.

Lord Sand left the sea
for the fields

I fear he is not well
that it was done for a joke

the weather is now very warm
an axe white with light

but Lord Sand they say
will lead in the darkest manner

mouth in mourning like a prince
believed to lay up hidden money

lord of anger
without any consciousness of his faults

he has no face but a grave
which I will not call my brother

I resolve to stand on my own legs
or fall


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 20 January 1663/64.

Up, without any kindness to my wife, and so to the office, where we sat all the morning, and at noon I to the ‘Change, and thence to Mr. Cutler’s with Sir W. Rider to dinner, and after dinner with him to the Old James upon our reference of Mr. Bland’s, and, having sat there upon the business half an hour, broke up, and I home and there found Madame Turner and her sister Dike come to see us, and staid chatting till night, and so away, and I to my office till very late, and my eyes began to fail me, and be in pain which I never felt to now-a-days, which I impute to sitting up late writing and reading by candle-light. So home to supper and to bed.

I sat all morning
and the land sat there
till night
and my very eyes
began to sit


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 19 January 1663/64.

Up, being troubled to find my wife so ready to have me go out of doors. God forgive me for my jealousy! but I cannot forbear, though God knows I have no reason to do so, or to expect her being so true to me as I would have her. I abroad to White Hall, where the Court all in mourning for the Duchesse of Savoy. We did our business with the Duke, and so I to W. Howe at my Lord’s lodgings, not seeing my Lord, he being abroad, and there I advised with W. Howe about my having my Lord to dinner at my house, who likes it well, though it troubles me that I should come to need the advice of such a boy, but for the present it is necessary. Here I found Mr. Mallard, and had from him a common tune set by my desire to the Lyra Vyall, which goes most admirably. Thence home by coach to the ‘Change, after having been at the Coffee-house, where I hear Turner is found guilty of felony and burglary; and strange stories of his confidence at the barr, but yet great indiscretion in his argueing. All desirous of his being hanged.
So home and found that Will had been with my wife. But, Lord! why should I think any evil of that; and yet I cannot forbear it. But upon enquiry, though I found no reason of doubtfulness, yet I could not bring my nature to any quiet or content in my wife all day and night, nor though I went with her to divert myself at my uncle Wight’s, and there we played at cards till 12 at night and went home in a great shower of rain, it having not rained a great while before. Here was one Mr. Benson, a Dutchman, played and supped with us, that pretends to sing well, and I expected great matters but found nothing to be pleased with at all. So home and to bed, yet troubled in my mind.

doors, forgive me
for having a house

who likes to need
such a common evil
for quiet or content in the rain

a rain that tends to sing well
and eat nothing at all


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 18 January 1663/64.

(Lord’s day). Up, and I and my wife to church, where Pembleton appeared, which, God forgive me, did vex me, but I made nothing of it. So home to dinner, and betimes my wife and I to the French church and there heard a good sermon, the first time my wife and I were there ever together. We sat by three sisters, all pretty women. It was pleasant to hear the reader give notice to them, that the children to be catechized next Sunday were them of Hounsditch and Blanche Chapiton. Thence home, and there found Ashwell come to see my wife (we having called at her lodging the other day to speak with her about dressing my wife when my Lord Sandwich dines here), and is as merry as ever, and speaks as disconcerned for any difference between us on her going away as ever. She being gone, my wife and I to see Sir W. Pen and there supped with him much against my stomach, for the dishes were so deadly foule that I could not endure to look upon them.
So after supper home to prayers and to bed.

if God made nothing
if he heard me

if I were to catechize
the ditch and the well

if I called the peak my Lord
disconcerned for any difference

if I were so dead
that I could not look up


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 17 January 1663/64.

Up, and having paid some money in the morning to my uncle Thomas on his yearly annuity, to the office, where we sat all the morning. At noon I to the ‘Change about some pieces of eight for Sir J. Lawson. There I hear that Collonell Turner is found guilty of felony at the Sessions in Mr. Tryan’s business, which will save his life. So home and met there J. Harper come to see his kinswoman our Jane. I made much of him and made him dine with us, he talking after the old simple manner that he used to do. He being gone, I by water to Westminster Hall, and there did see Mrs. Lane, and de là, elle and I to the caberet at the Cloche in the street du roy; and there, after some caresses, je l’ay foutée sous de la chaise deux times, and the last to my great pleasure; mais j’ai grand peur que je l’ay fait faire aussi elle même. Mais after I had done, elle commencait parler as before and I did perceive that je n’avais fait rien de danger à elle. Et avec ça, I came away; and though I did make grand promises à la contraire, nonobstant je ne la verrai pas long time. So by coach home and to my office, where Browne of the Minerys brought me an Instrument made of a Spyral line very pretty for all questions in Arithmetique almost, but it must be some use that must make me perfect in it.
So home to supper and to bed, with my mind ‘un peu troubled pour ce que fait’ to-day, but I hope it will be ‘la dernier de toute ma vie.’

no laws will save us

the old simple manner that used to do
being gone

danger is an instrument
made of questions

I must be at home with hope


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 16 January 1663/64.

Up and to my office, where all the morning, and among other things Mr. Turner with me, and I did tell him my mind about the Controller his master and all the office, and my mind touching himself too, as he did carry himself either well or ill to me and my clerks, which I doubt not but it will operate well.
Thence to the ‘Change, and there met my uncle Wight, who was very kind to me, and would have had me home with him, and so kind that I begin to wonder and think something of it of good to me.
Thence home to dinner, and after dinner with Mr. Hater by water, and walked thither and back again from Deptford, where I did do something checking the iron business, but my chief business was my discourse with Mr. Hater about what had passed last night and to-day about the office business, and my resolution to do him all the good I can therein.
So home, and my wife tells me that my uncle Wight hath been with her, and played at cards with her, and is mighty inquisitive to know whether she is with child or no, which makes me wonder what his meaning is, and after all my thoughts, I cannot think, unless it be in order to the making his will, that he might know how to do by me, and I would to God my wife had told him that she was.

things turn in my mind
doubt will operate as water
for something iron

but what passed last night
can I be with child

what can I be making
that might know me


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 15 January 1663/64.

Up and to the office, where all the morning, and at noon all of us, viz., Sir G. Carteret and Sir W. Batten at one end, and Mr. Coventry, Sir J. Minnes and I (in the middle at the other end, being taught how to sit there all three by my sitting so much the backwarder) at the other end, to Sir G. Carteret’s, and there dined well. Here I saw Mr. Scott, the bastard that married his youngest daughter. Much pleasant talk at table, and then up and to the office, where we sat long upon our design of dividing the Controller’s work into some of the rest of our hands for the better doing of it, but he would not yield to it, though the simple man knows in his heart that he do not do one part of it. So he taking upon him to do it all we rose, I vexed at the heart to see the King’s service run after this manner, but it cannot be helped.
Thence to the Old James to the reference about Mr. Bland’s business. Sir W. Rider being now added to us, and I believe we shall soon come to some determination in it. So home and to my office, did business, and then up to Sir W. Pen and did express my trouble about this day’s business, he not being there, and plainly told him what I thought of it, and though I know him a false fellow yet I adventured, as I have done often, to tell him clearly my opinion of Sir W. Batten and his design in this business, which is very bad.
Hence home, and after a lecture to my wife in her globes, to prayers and to bed.

the backward bastard
that married his troll hands

in his heart no part
of a rose

but business business business
low as a glob


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Thursday 14 January 1663/64.

Up and to my office a little, and then abroad to many several places about business, among others to the geometrical instrument makers, and through Bedlam (calling by the way at an old bookseller’s and there fell into looking over Spanish books and pitched upon some, till I thought of my oathe when I was going to agree for them, and so with much ado got myself out of the shop glad at my heart and so away) to the African House to look upon their book of contracts for several commodities for my information in the prices we give in the Navy.
So to the Coffee [house] where extraordinary good discourse of Dr. Whistler’s upon my question concerning the keeping of masts, he arguing against keeping them dry, by showing the nature of corruption in bodies and the several ways thereof. So to the ‘Change, and thence with Sir W. Rider to the Trinity House to dinner, and then home and to my office till night, and then with Mr. Bland to Sir T. Viner’s about pieces of eight for Sir J. Lawson, and so back to my office, and there late upon business, and so home to supper and to bed.

the road places us in a bedlam
of oath and whistle
arguing bodies
and the several ways to ride
to home and to office

and the land
in back of us


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 13 January 1663/64.