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 betimes, and after taking leave of my brother, John, who went from me to my father’s this day, I went forth by water to Sir Philip Warwick’s, where I was with him a pretty while; and in discourse he tells me, and made it appear to me, that the King cannot be in debt to the Navy at this time 5,000l.; and it is my opinion that Sir G. Carteret do owe the King money, and yet the whole Navy debt paid. Thence I parted, being doubtful of myself that I have not, spoke with the gravity and weight that I ought to do in so great a business. But I rather hope it is my doubtfulness of myself, and the haste which he was in, some very great personages waiting for him without, while he was with me, that made him willing to be gone. To the office by water, where we sat doing little, now Mr. Coventry is not here, but only vex myself to see what a sort of coxcombs we are when he is not here to undertake such a business as we do. In the afternoon telling my wife that I go to Deptford, I went, by water to Westminster Hall, and there finding Mrs. Lane, took her over to Lambeth, where we were lately, and there, did what I would with her, but only the main thing, which she would not consent to, for which God be praised, and yet I came so near, that I was provoked to spend. But, trust in the Lord, I shall never do so again while I live. After being tired with her company I landed her at White Hall, and so home and at my office writing letters till 12 at night almost, and then home to supper and bed, and there found my poor wife hard at work, which grieved my heart to see that I should abuse so good a wretch, and that is just with God to make her bad with me for my wronging of her, but I do resolve never to do the like again. So to bed.

in water I appear to myself

I have no gravity without it
only myself

what sort of water would God be
so near that I rust
the ice hard at my heart


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Thursday 24 September 1663.

Up betimes and to my office, where setting down my journall while I was in the country to this day, and at noon by water to my Lord Crew’s, and there dined with him and Sir Thomas, thinking to have them inquire something about my Lord’s lodgings at Chelsey, or any thing of that sort, but they did not, nor seem to take the least notice of it, which is their discretion, though it might be better for my Lord and them too if they did, that so we might advise together for the best, which cannot be while we seem ignorant one to another, and it is not fit for me to begin the discourse. Thence walked to several places about business and to Westminster Hall, thinking to meet Mrs. Lane, which is my great vanity upon me at present, but I must correct it. She was not in the way.
So by water home and to my office, whither by and by came my brother John, who is to go to Cambridge to-morrow, and I did give him a most severe reprimand for his bad account he gives me of his studies. This I did with great passion and sharp words, which I was sorry to be forced to say, but that I think it for his good, forswearing doing anything for him, and that which I have yet, and now do give him, is against my heart, and will also be hereafter, till I do see him give me a better account of his studies. I was sorry to see him give me no answer, but, for aught I see, to hear me without great resentment, and such as I should have had: in his condition. But I have done my duty, let him do his, for I am resolved to be as good as my word. After two hours walking in the garden, till after it was dark, I ended with him and to my office, and there set some papers in order, and so to supper, and my poor wife, who is mighty busy at home; fitting her closet. So to bed.

they did not seem to take
the least notice of it

did not seem fit for it
the great harp

that I hear in the garden
after dark


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 23 September 1663.

I up, well refreshed after my journey, and to my office and there set some things in order, and then Sir W. Pen and I met and held an office, and at noon to dinner, and so by water with my wife to Westminster, she to see her father and mother, and we met again at my Lord’s lodgings, and thence by water home again, where at the door we met Sir W. Pen and his daughter coming to visit us, and after their visit I to my office, and after some discourse to my great satisfaction with Sir W. Warren about our bargain of masts, I wrote my letters by the post, and so home to supper and to bed.
This day my wife showed me bills printed, wherein her father, with Sir John Collidon and Sir Edward Ford, have got a patent for curing of smoky chimneys. I wish they may do good thereof, but fear it will prove but a poor project.
This day the King and Queen are to come to Oxford. I hear my Lady Castlemaine is for certain gone to Oxford to meet him, having lain within here at home this week or two, supposed to have miscarried; but for certain is as great in favour as heretofore; at least Mrs. Sarah at my Lord’s, who hears all from their own family, do say so.
Every day brings newes of the Turke’s advance into Germany, to the awakeing of all the Christian Princes thereabouts, and possessing himself of Hungary. My present care is fitting my wife’s closett and my house, and making her a velvet coate, and me a new black cloth suit, and coate and cloake, and evening my reckoning as well as I can against Michaelmas Day, hoping for all that to have my balance as great or greater than ever I had yet.

after my journey
the door is great as a wish

but poor as the prince of a closet
and a new black cloak


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 22 September 1663.

Up very betimes by break of day, and got my wife up, whom the thought of this day’s long journey do discourage; and after eating something, and changing of a piece of gold to pay the reckoning, we mounted, and through Baldwicke, where a fayre is kept to-day, and a great one for cheese and other such commodities, and so to Hatfield, it being most curious weather from the time we set out to our getting home, and here we dined, and my wife being very weary, and believing that it would be hard to get her home to-night, and a great charge to keep her longer abroad, I took the opportunity of an empty coach that was to go to London, and left her to come in it to London, for half-a-crown, and so I and the boy home as fast as we could drive, and it was even night before we got home. So that I account it very good fortune that we took this course, being myself very weary, much more would my wife have been. At home found all very well and my house in good order. To see Sir W. Pen, who is pretty well, and Sir J. Minnes, who is a little lame on one foot, and the rest gone to Chatham, viz.: Sir G. Carteret and Sir W. Batten, who has in my absence inveighed against my contract the other day for Warren’s masts, in which he is a knave, and I shall find matter of tryumph, but it vexes me a little. So home, and by and by comes my wife by coach well home, and having got a good fowl ready for supper against her coming, we eat heartily, and so with great content and ease to our own bed, there nothing appearing so to our content as to be at our own home, after being abroad awhile.

the field at night
empty as good fortune

who is a little lame
on one foot

who has an owl ready for supper
in her heart


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 21 September 1663.

(Lord’s day). Up, and finding my father somewhat better, walked to Huntingdon church, where in my Lord’s pew, with the young ladies, by my Lord’s own showing me the place, I stayed the sermon, and so to Hinchingbroke, walking with Mr. Shepley and Dr. King, whom they account a witty man here, as well as a good physician, and there my Lord took me with the rest of the company, and singly demanded my opinion in the walks in his garden, about the bringing of the crooked wall on the mount to a shape; and so to dinner, there being Collonel Williams and much other company, and a noble dinner. But having before got my Lord’s warrant for travelling to-day, there being a proclamation read yesterday against it at Huntingdon, at which I am very glad, I took leave, leaving them at dinner, and walked alone to my father’s, and there, after a word or two to my father and mother, my wife and I mounted, and, with my father’s boy, upon a horse I borrowed of Captain Ferrers, we rode to Bigglesworth by the help of a couple of countrymen, that led us through the very long and dangerous waters, because of the ditches on each side, though it begun to be very dark, and there we had a good breast of mutton roasted for us, and supped, and to bed.

what wing broke a pinion in the garden

I am hunting a word to help us
through the long waters
on each side the east


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 20 September 1663.

Up pretty betimes, and after eating something, we set out and I (being willing thereto) went by a mistake with them to St. Ives, and there, it being known that it was their nearer way to London, I took leave of them there, they going straight to London and I to Brampton, where I find my father ill in bed still, and Madam Norbery (whom and her fair daughter and sister I was ashamed to kiss, but did, my lip being sore with riding in the wind and bit with the gnatts), lately come to town, come to see my father and mother, and they after a little stay being gone, I told my father my success. And after dinner my wife and I took horse, and rode with marvellous, and the first and only hour of, pleasure, that ever I had in this estate since I had to do with it, to Brampton woods; and through the wood rode, and gathered nuts in my way, and then at Graffam to an old woman’s house to drink, where my wife used to go; and being in all circumstances highly pleased, and in my wife’s riding and good company at this time, I rode, and she showed me the river behind my father’s house, which is very pleasant, and so saw her home, and I straight to Huntingdon, and there met Mr. Shepley and to the Crown (having sent home my horse by Stankes), and there a barber came and trimmed me, and thence walked to Hinchingbroke, where my Lord and ladies all are just alighted. And so I in among them, and my Lord glad to see me, and the whole company. Here I staid and supped with them, and after a good stay talking, but yet observing my Lord not to be so mightily ingulphed in his pleasure in the country as I expected and hoped, I took leave of them, and after a walk in the courtyard in the dark with Mr. Howe, who tells me that my Lord do not enjoy himself and please himself as he used to do, but will hasten up to London, and that he is resolved to go to Chelsey again, which we are heartily grieved for and studious how to prevent if it be possible, I took horse, there being one appointed for me, and a groom to attend me, and so home, where my wife staid up and sister for me, and so to bed, troubled for what I hear of my Lord.

a moth in the woods is her own light

serving not the expected dark joy

but haste and a heart studious to be a room


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 19 September 1663.

Up, and got our people together as soon as we could; and after eating a dish of cold cream, which was my supper last night too, we took leave of our beggarly company, though they seem good people, too; and over most sad Fenns, all the way observing the sad life which the people of the place which if they be born there, they do call the Breedlings’ of the place, do live, sometimes rowing from one spot to another, and then wadeing, to Wisbeach, a pretty town, and a fine church and library, where sundry very old abbey manuscripts; and a fine house, built on the church ground by Secretary Thurlow, and a fine gallery built for him in the church, but now all in the Bishop of Ely’s hands. After visiting the church, &c., we went out of the towne, by the help of a stranger, to find out one Blinkhorne, a miller, of whom we might inquire something of old Day’s disposal of his estate, and in whose hands it now is; and by great chance we met him, and brought him to our inn to dinner; and instead of being informed in his estate by this fellow, we find that he is the next heir to the estate, which was matter, of great sport to my cozen Thomas and me, to see such a fellow prevent us in our hopes, he being Day’s brother’s, daughter’s son, whereas we are but his sister’s sons and grandsons; so that, after all, we were fain to propose our matter to him, and to get him to give us leave to look after the business, and so he to have one-third part, and we two to have the other two-third parts, of what should be recovered of the estate, which he consented to; and after some discourse and paying the reckoning, we mounted again, and rode, being very merry at our defeat, to Chatteris, my uncle very weary, and after supper, and my telling of three stories, to their good liking, of spirits, we all three in a chamber went to bed.

a beggar in the library
dry old manuscripts of hands

in the church of no chance
we find him telling stories to the spirits


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 18 September 1663.

Up, and my father being gone to bed ill last night and continuing so this morning, I was forced to come to a new consideration, whether it was fit for to let my uncle and his son go to Wisbeach about my uncle Day’s estate alone or no, and concluded it unfit; and so resolved to go with them myself, leaving my wife there, I begun a journey with them, and with much ado, through the fens, along dikes, where sometimes we were ready to have our horses sink to the belly, we got by night, with great deal of stir and hard riding, to Parson’s Drove, a heathen place, where I found my uncle and aunt Perkins, and their daughters, poor wretches! in a sad, poor thatched cottage, like a poor barn, or stable, peeling of hemp, in which I did give myself good content to see their manner of preparing of hemp; and in a poor condition of habitt took them to our miserable inn, and there, after long stay, and hearing of Frank, their son, the miller, play, upon his treble, as he calls it, with which he earns part of his living, and singing of a country bawdy song, we sat down to supper; the whole crew, and Frank’s wife and child, a sad company, of which I was ashamed, supped with us. And after supper I, talking with my aunt about her report concerning my uncle Day’s will and surrender, I found her in such different reports from what she writes and says to the people, and short of what I expected, that I fear little will be done of good in it. By and by newes is brought to us that one of our horses is stole out of the stable, which proves my uncle’s, at which I am inwardly glad — I mean, that it was not mine; and at this we were at a great loss; and they doubting a person that lay at next door, a Londoner, some lawyer’s clerk, we caused him to be secured in his bed, and other care to be taken to seize the horse; and so about twelve at night or more, to bed in a sad, cold, nasty chamber, only the mayde was indifferent handsome, and so I had a kiss or two of her, and I to bed, and a little after I was asleep they waked me to tell me that the horse was found, which was good newes, and so to sleep till the morning, but was bit cruelly, and nobody else of our company, which I wonder at, by the gnatts.

I come with my gun
and the belly of a heathen

hatch like a sad will
in some lawyer’s indifferent hands

kiss her and go to sleep
bit cruelly by gnats


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Thursday 17 September 1663.

Up betimes, and with my wife to Hinchingbroke to see my Lady, she being to go to my Lord this morning, and there I left her, and so back to the Court, and heard Sir R. Bernard’s charges to the Courts Baron and Leete, which took up till noon, and were worth hearing, and after putting my business into some way, went home to my father’s to dinner, and after dinner to the Court, where Sir Robert and his son came again by and by, and then to our business, and my father and I having given bond to him for the 21l. Piggott owed him, my uncle Thomas did quietly admit himself and surrender to us the lands first mortgaged for our whole debt, and Sir Robert added to it what makes it up 209l., to be paid in six months. But when I came to give him an account of more lands to be surrendered to us, wherein Piggott’s wife was concerned, and she there to give her consent, Sir Robert would not hear of it, but began to talk very high that we were very cruel, and we had caution enough for our money, and he could not in conscience let the woman do it, and reproached my uncle, both he and his son, with taking use upon use for this money. To all which I did give him such answers and spoke so well, and kept him so to it, that all the Court was silent to hear us, and by report since do confess they did never hear the like in the place. But he by a wile had got our bond, and I was content to have as much as I could though I could not get all, and so took Piggott’s surrender of them without his wife, and by Sir Robert’s own consent did tell the Court that if the money were not paid in the time, and the security prove not sufficient, I would conclude myself wronged by Sir Robert, which he granted I should do.
This kept us till night, but am heartily glad it ended so well on my uncle’s part, he doing that and Prior’s little house very willingly. So the Court broke up, and my father and Mr. Shepley and I to Gorrum’s to drink, and then I left them, and to the Bull, where my uncle was to hear what he and the people said of our business, and here nothing but what liked me very well. So by and by home and to supper, and with my mind in pretty good quiett, to bed.

morning put me into debt
I surrendered my answers

silent as money this heart
little bull in a well


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 16 September 1663.

Up pretty betimes and rode as far as Godmanchester, Mr. Moore having two falls, once in water and another in dirt, and there ‘light and eat and drunk, being all of us very weary, but especially my uncle and wife. Thence to Brampton to my father’s, and there found all well, but not sensible how they ought to treat my uncle and his son, at least till the Court be over, which vexed me, but on my counsel they carried it fair to them; and so my father, cozen Thomas, and I up to Hinchingbroke, where I find my Lord and his company gone to Boughton, which vexed me; but there I find my Lady and the young ladies, and there I alone with my Lady two hours, she carrying me through every part of the house and gardens, which are, and will be, mighty noble indeed. Here I saw Mrs. Betty Pickering, who is a very well-bred and comely lady, but very fat. Thence, without so much as drinking, home with my father and cozen, who staid for me, and to a good supper; after I had had an hour’s talk with my father abroad in the fields, wherein he begun to talk very highly of my promises to him of giving him the profits of Sturtlow, as if it were nothing that I give him out of my purse, and that he would have me to give this also from myself to my brothers and sister; I mean Brampton and all, I think: I confess I was angry to hear him talk in that manner, and took him up roundly in it, and advised him if he could not live upon 50l. per ann., which was another part of his discourse, that he would think to come and live at Tom’s again, where 50l. per ann. will be a good addition to Tom’s trade, and I think that must be done when all is done. But my father spoke nothing more of it all the time I was in the country, though at the time he seemed to like it well enough. I also spoke with Piggott too this evening before I went in to supper, and doubt that I shall meet with some knots in my business to-morrow before I can do it at the Court, but I shall do my best.
After supper my uncle and his son to Stankes’s to bed, which troubles me, all our father’s beds being lent to Hinchingbroke, and so my wife and I to bed, she very weary.

dirt-drunk I find company
in the fields

giving nothing roundly
I live like a pig or a knot


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 15 September 1663.