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 very early, and my joyners came to work. I to Mr. Moore; from him came back home again, and drew up an account to my Lord, and that being done met him at my Lord Sandwich’s, where I was a good while alone with my Lord; and I perceive he confides in me and loves me as he used to do, and tells me his condition, which is now very well all I fear is that he will not live within compass, for I am told this morning of strange dotages of his upon the slut at Chelsea, even in the presence of his daughter, my Lady Jem, and Mrs. Ferrers, who took notice of it.
There come to him this morning his prints of the river Tagus and the City of Lisbon, which he measured with his own hand, and printed by command of the King. My Lord pleases himself with it, but methinks it ought to have been better done then by Iching. Besides I put him upon having some took off upon white sattin, which he ordered presently.
I offered my Lord my accounts, and did give him up his old bond for 500l. and took a new one of him for 700l., which I am by lending him more money to make up: and I am glad of it. My Lord would have had me dine with him, but I had a mind to go home to my workmen, and so took a kind good bye of him, and so with Creed to St. James’s, and, missing Mr. Coventry, walked to the New Exchange, and there drank some whey, and so I by water home, and found my closett at my office made very clean and neat to my mind mightily, and home to dinner, and then to my office to brush my books, and put them and my papers in order again, and all the afternoon till late at night doing business there, and so home to supper, and then to work in my chamber, making matters of this day’s accounts clear in my books, they being a little extraordinary, and so being very late I put myself to bed, the rest being long ago gone.

love used to live
in the presence of the river
red handprint


Erasure haiku derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 24 August 1663.

(Lord’s day). Up and to church without my wife, she being all dirty, as my house is. God forgive me, I looked about to see if I could spy Pembleton, but I could not, which did please me not a little. Home to dinner, and then to walk up and down in my house with my wife, discoursing of our family matters, and I hope, after all my troubles of mind and jealousy, we shall live happily still. To church again, and so home to my wife; and with her read “Iter Boreale,” a poem, made just at the King’s coming home; but I never read it before, and now like it pretty well, but not so as it was cried up. So to supper. No pleasure or discourse with Ashwell, with whom for her neglect and unconcernment to do any thing in this time of dirt and trouble in the house, but gadding abroad as she has been all this afternoon, I know not whither. After supper to prayers and to bed, having been, by a sudden letter coming to me from Mr. Coventry, been with Sir W. Pen, to discourse with him about sending 500 soldiers into Ireland. I doubt matters do not go very right there.

I look about to see
if I could hope

we live still
in a boreal poem

but now like a sudden letter
coming from a soldier


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 23 August 1663.

Up by four o’clock to go with Sir W. Batten to Woolwich and Sir J. Minnes, which we did, though not before 6 or 7 by their laying a-bed. Our business was to survey the new wharf building there, in order to the giving more to him that do it (Mr. Randall) than contracted for, but I see no reason for it, though it be well done, yet no better than contracted to be.
Here we eat and drank at the Clerke of the Cheques, and in taking water at the Tower gate, we drank a cup of strong water, which I did out of pure conscience to my health, and I think is not excepted by my oaths, but it is a thing I shall not do again, hoping to have no such occasion. After breakfast Mr. Castle and I walked to Greenwich, and in our way met some gypsys, who would needs tell me my fortune, and I suffered one of them, who told me many things common as others do, but bade me beware of a John and a Thomas, for they did seek to do me hurt, and that somebody should be with me this day se’nnight to borrow money of me, but I should lend him none. She got ninepence of me. And so I left them and to Greenwich and so to Deptford, where the two knights were come, and thence home by water, where I find my closet done at my office to my mind and work gone well on at home; and Ashwell gone abroad to her father, my wife having spoken plainly to her. After dinner to my office, getting my closet made clean and setting some papers in order, and so in the evening home and to bed.
This day Sir W. Batten tells me that Mr. Newburne (of whom the nick-word came up among us for “Arise Tom Newburne”) is dead of eating Cowcoumbers, of which the other day, I heard another, I think Sir Nich. Crisps son.

in business to build order
all a contract I see no reason
for a conscience after breakfast

gypsies tell my fortune at the office
tell who among us
is dead of eating ink


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 22 August 1663.

Up betimes and among my joyners, and to my office, where the joyners are also laying mouldings in the inside of my closet.
Then abroad and by water to White Hall, and there got Sir G. Carteret to sign me my last quarter’s bills for my wages, and meeting with Mr. Creed he told me how my Lord Teviott hath received another attaque from Guyland at Tangier with 10,000 men, and at last, as is said, is come, after a personal treaty with him, to a good understanding and peace with him.
Thence to my brother’s, and there told him how my girl has served us which he sent me, and directed him to get my clothes again, and get the girl whipped.
So to other places by the way about small businesses, and so home, and after looking over all my workmen, I went by water and land to Deptford, and there found by appointment Sir W. Batten, but he was got to Mr. Waith’s to dinner, where I dined with him, a good dinner and good discourse, and his wife, I believe, a good woman. We fell in discourse of Captain Cocke, and how his lady has lost all her fine linen almost, but besides that they say she gives out she had 3000l. worth of linen, which we all laugh at, and Sir W. Batten (who I perceive is not so fond of the Captain as he used to be, and less of her, from her slight receiving of him and his lady it seems once) told me how he should say that he see he must spend 700l. per ann. get it how he could, which was a high speech, and by all men’s discover, his estate not good enough to spend so much.
After dinner altered our design to go to Woolwich, and put it off to to-morrow morning, and so went all to Greenwich (Mrs. Waith excepted, who went thither, but not to the same house with us, but to her father’s, that lives there), to the musique-house, where we had paltry musique, till the master organist came, whom by discourse I afterwards knew, having employed him for my Lord Sandwich, to prick out something (his name Arundell), and he did give me a fine voluntary or two, and so home by water, and at home I find my girl that run away brought by a bedel of St. Bride’s Parish, and stripped her and sent her away, and a newe one come, of Griffin’s helping to, which I think will prove a pretty girl. Her name, Susan, and so to supper after having this evening paid Mr. Hunt 3l. for my viall (besides the carving which I paid this day 10s. for to the carver), and he tells me that I may, without flattery, say, I have as good a Theorbo viall and viallin as is in England. So to bed.

mold in my closet
and all my clothes lost
her fine linen green
as water
that run-away bride


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 21 August 1663.

Up betimes and to my office (having first been angry with my brother John, and in the heat of my sudden passion called him Asse and coxcomb, for which I am sorry, it being but for leaving the key of his chamber with a spring lock within side of his door), and there we sat all the morning, and at noon dined at home, and there found a little girl, which she told my wife her name was Jinny, by which name we shall call her. I think a good likely girl, and a parish child of St. Bride’s, of honest parentage, and recommended by the churchwarden.
After dinner among my joyners laying my floors, which please me well, and so to my office, and we sat this afternoon upon an extraordinary business of victualling.
In the evening came Commissioner Pett, who fell foule on mee for my carriage to him at Chatham, wherein, after protestation of my love and good meaning to him, he was quiet; but I doubt he will not be able to do the service there that any other man of his ability would.
Home in the evening my viall (and lute new strung being brought home too), and I would have paid Mr. Hunt for it, but he did not come along with it himself, which I expected and was angry for it, so much is it against my nature to owe anything to any body. This evening the girle that was brought to me to-day for so good a one, being cleansed of lice this day by my wife, and good, new clothes put on her back, she run away from Goody Taylour that was shewing her the way to the bakehouse, and we heard no more of her.
So to supper and to bed.

angry at being here
like a child of war

after my floor fell on me
after a quiet doubt will not do

my new-strung self
angry at this one good wing


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Thursday 20 August 1663.

Up betimes, and my wife up and about the house, Susan beginning to have her drunken tricks, and put us in mind of her old faults and folly and distractednesse, which we had forgot, so that I became mightily troubled with her. This morning came my joyners to new lay the floors, and begun with the dining room.
I out and see my viall again, and it is very well, and to Mr. Hollyard, and took some pills of him and a note under his hand to drink wine with my beere, without which I was obliged, by my private vowe, to drink none a good while, and have strictly observed it, and by my drinking of small beere and not eating, I am so mightily troubled with wind, that I know not what to do almost.
Thence to White Hall, and there met Mr. Moore, and fell a-talking about my Lord’s folly at Chelsey, and it was our discourse by water to London and to the great coffee house against the Exchange, where we sat a good while talking; and I find that my lord is wholly given up to this wench, who it seems has been reputed a common strumpett. I have little encouragement from Mr. Moore to meddle with it to tell my Lord, for fear it may do him no good, but me hurt.
Thence homewards, taking leave of him, and met Tom Marsh, my old acquaintance at Westminster, who talks mightily of the honour of his place, being Clerke Assistant to the Clerke of the House of Commons, and I take him to be a coxcombe, and so did give him half a pint of wine, but drink none myself, and so got shut of him. So home, and there found my wife almost mad with Susan’s tricks, so as she is forced to let her go and leave the house all in dirt and the clothes all wet, and gets Goody Taylour to do the business for her till another comes. Here came Will Howe, and he and I alone in my chamber talking of my Lord, who drives me out of love to my Lord to tell my Lord of the matter we discoursed of, which tend so much to the ruin of his state, and so I resolved to take a good heart and do whatever comes of it. He gone, we sat down and eat a bit of dinner fetched from the cooke’s, and so up again and to my joyners, who will make my floors very handsome. By and by comes in Pembleton, which begun to make me sweat, but I did give him so little countenance, and declared at one word against dancing any more, and bid him a short (God be with you) myself, and so he took as short a leave of my wife and so went away, and I think without any time of receiving any great satisfaction from my wife or invitation to come again.
To my office till it was dark doing business, and so home by candle light to make up my accounts for my Lord and Mr. Moore. By and by comes Mr. Moore to me, and staid a good while with me making up his accounts and mine, and we did not come to any end therein for want of his papers, and so put it off to another time.
He supped with me in all my dirt and disorder, and so went away and we to bed.
I discoursed with him a great while about my speaking to my Lord of his business, and I apprehend from him that it is likely to prove perhaps of bad effect to me and no good to him, and therefore I shall even let it alone and let God do his will, at least till my Lord is in the country, and then we shall see whether he resolves to come to Chelsey again or no, and so order the stopping of him therein if we can.

drunk and distracted
I forgot my gun
and took some pills
out of love of ruin
dancing by candle light
in all my dirt and disorder
like a bad god


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 19 August 1663.

Up and to my office, where we sat all the morning. And at noon home, and my father came and dined with me, Susan being come and helped my wife to dress dinner. After dinner my father and I talked about our country-matters, and in fine I find that he thinks 50l. per ann. will go near to keep them all, which I am glad of. He having taken his leave of me and my wife without any mention of the differences between them and my wife in the country, I went forth to several places about businesses, and so home again, and after prayers to bed.

here we all dress
the country in fine ink

without any mention of the difference
between place and prayer


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 18 August 1663.

Up, and then fell into discourse, my wife and I to Ashwell, and much against my will I am fain to express a willingness to Ashwell that she should go from us, and yet in my mind I am glad of it, to ease me of the charge. So she is to go to her father this day. And leaving my wife and her talking highly, I went away by coach with Sir J. Minnes and Sir W. Batten to St. James’s, and there attended of course the Duke. And so to White Hall, where I met Mr. Moore, and he tells me with great sorrow of my lord’s being debauched he fears by this woman at Chelsey, which I am troubled at, and resolve to speak to him of it if I can seasonably.
Thence home, where I dined, and after dinner comes our old mayde Susan to look for a gorgett that she says she has lost by leaving it here, and by many circumstances it being clear to me that Hannah, our present cook-mayde, not only has it, but had it on upon her necke when Susan came in, and shifted it off presently upon her coming in, I did charge her so home with it (having a mind to have her gone from us), that in a huff she told us she would be gone to-night if I would pay her her wages, which I was glad and my wife of, and so fetched her her wages, and though I am doubtful that she may convey some things away with her clothes, my wife searching them, yet we are glad of her being so gone, and so she went away in a quarter of an hour’s time. Being much amused at this to have never a maid but Ashwell, that we do not intend to keep, nor a boy, and my wife and I being left for an hour, till my brother came in, alone in the house, I grew very melancholy, and so my brother being come in I went forth to Mrs. Holden’s, to whom I formerly spoke about a girle to come to me instead of a boy, and the like I did to Mrs. Standing and also to my brother Tom, whom I found at an alehouse in Popinjay ally drinking, and I standing with him at the gate of the ally, Ashwell came by, and so I left Tom and went almost home with her, talking of her going away. I find that she is willing to go, and told her (though behind my back my wife has told her that it was more my desire than hers that she should go, which was not well), that seeing my wife and she could not agree I did choose rather (was she my sister) have her gone, it would be better for us and for her too. To which she willing agreed, and will not tell me anything but that she do believe that my wife would have some body there that might not be so liable to give me information of things as she takes her to be. But, however, I must labour to prevent all that.
I parted with her near home, agreeing to take no notice of my coming along with her, and so by and by came home after her.
Where I find a sad distracted house, which troubles me. However, to supper and prayers and to bed. And while we were getting to bed my wife began to discourse to her, and plainly asked whether she had got a place or no. And the other answered that she could go if we would to one of our own office, to which we agreed if she would. She thereupon said no; she would not go to any but where she might teach children, because of keeping herself in use of what things she had learned, which she do not here nor will there, but only dressing. By which I perceive the wench is cunning, but one very fit for such a place, and accomplished to be woman to any lady in the land. So quietly to sleep, it being a cold night.
But till my house is settled, I do not see that I can mind my business of the office, which grieves me to the heart. But I hope all will over in a little time, and I hope to the best. This day at Mrs. Holden’s I found my new low crowned beaver according to the present fashion made, and will be sent home to-morrow.

ash for my wages
my being much alone

like any art that children learn
the only business

of the heart will in time be
the present


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 17 August 1663.

(Lord’s day). Up and with my wife to church, and finding her desirous to go to church, I did suspect her meeting of Pembleton, but he was not there, and so I thought my jealousy in vain, and treat the sermon with great quiet. And home to dinner very pleasant, only some angry, notwithstanding my wife could not forbear to give Ashwell, and after dinner to church again, and there, looking up and down, I found Pembleton to stand in the isle against us, he coming too late to get a pew. Which, Lord! into what a sweat did it put me! I do not think my wife did see him, which did a little satisfy me. But it makes me mad to see of what a jealous temper I am and cannot helpe it, though let him do what he can I do not see, as I am going to reduce my family, what hurt he can do me, there being no more occasion now for my wife to learn of him.
Here preached a confident young coxcomb. So home, and I staid a while with Sir J. Minnes, at Mrs. Turner’s, hearing his parrat talk, laugh, and crow, which it do to admiration. So home and with my wife to see Sir W. Pen, and thence to my uncle Wight, and took him at supper and sat down, where methinks my uncle is more kind than he used to be both to me now, and my father tell me to him also, which I am glad at.
After supper home, it being extraordinary dark, and by chance a lanthorn came by, and so we hired it to light us home, otherwise were we no sooner within doors but a great showre fell that had doused us cruelly if we had not been within, it being as dark as pitch.
So to prayers and to bed.

meeting with great quiet
as if in an urn

hearing a crow
took us to the light

wise were we that had
no itch to pray


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 16 August 1663.

Lay pretty long in bed, being a little troubled with some pain got by wind and cold, and so up with good peace of mind, hoping that my wife will mind her house and servants, and so to the office, and being too soon to sit walked to my viall, which is well nigh done, and I believe I may have it home to my mind next week. So back to my office, and there we sat all the morning, I till 2 o’clock before I could go to dinner again.
After dinner walked forth to my instrument maker, and there had my rule he made me lay now so perfected, that I think in all points I have never need or desire a better, or think that any man yet had one so good in all the several points of it for my use. So by water down to Deptford, taking into my boat with me Mr. Palmer, one whom I knew and his wife when I was first married, being an acquaintance of my wife’s and her friends lodging at Charing Cross during our differences. He joyed me in my condition, and himself it seems is forced to follow the law in a common ordinary way, but seems to do well, and is a sober man, enough by his discourse. He landed with me at Deptford, where he saw by the officers’ respect to me a piece of my command, and took notice of it, though God knows I hope I shall not be elated with that, but rather desire to be known for serving the King well, and doing my duty.
He gone I walked up and down the yard a while discoursing with the officers, and so by water home meditating on my new Rule with great pleasure. So to my office, and there by candle light doing business, and so home to supper and to bed.

wind and cold
I never need better friends
meditating by candlelight


Erasure haiku derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 15 August 1663.