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 to the office, where we sat all the morning, and then with the whole board, viz., Sir J. Minnes, Sir W. Batten, and myself along with Captain Allen home to dinner, where he lives hard by in Mark Lane, where we had a very good plain dinner and good welcome, in a pretty little house but so smoky that it was troublesome to us all till they put out the fire, and made one of charcoale.
I was much pleased with this dinner for the many excellent stories told by Mr. Coventry, which I have put down in my book of tales and so shall not mention them here.
We staid till night, and then Mr. Coventry away, and by and by I home to my office till 9 or 10 at night, and so home to supper and to bed after some talke and Arithmetique with my poor wife, with whom now-a-days I live with great content, out of all trouble of mind by jealousy (for which God forgive me), or any other distraction more than my fear of my Lord Sandwich’s displeasure.

I live hard in a little house
so smoky that it was troublesome
till they put out the fire

in my book of tales
the poor live with great content
out of mind


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 5 December 1663.

Up pretty betimes, that is about 7 o’clock, it being now dark then, and so got me ready, with my clothes, breeches and warm stockings, and by water with Henry Russell, cold and wet and windy to Woolwich, to a hempe ship there, and staid looking upon it and giving direction as to the getting it ashore, and so back again very cold, and at home without going on shore anywhere about 12 o’clock, being fearful of taking cold, and so dined at home and shifted myself, and so all the afternoon at my office till night, and then home to keep my poor wife company, and so to supper and to bed.

a clock dark with tocking
cold ash of an afternoon

I keep poor company


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 4 December 1663.

Up and to the office, where all the forenoon, and then (by Mr. Coventry’s coach) to the ‘Change, and so home to dinner, very pleasant with my poor wife. Somebody from Portsmouth, I know not who, has this day sent me a Runlett of Tent. So to my office all the afternoon, where much business till late at night, and so home to my wife, and then to supper and to bed.
This day Sir G. Carteret did tell us at the table, that the Navy (excepting what is due to the Yards upon the quarter now going on, and what few bills he hath not heard of) is quite out of debt; which is extraordinary good newes, and upon the ‘Change to hear how our creditt goes as good as any merchant’s upon the ‘Change is a joyfull thing to consider, which God continue! I am sure the King will have the benefit of it, as well as we some peace and creditt.

some mouth has run
all night and day

what ills not heard of
which extraordinary news as good
as any peace


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Thursday 3 December 1663.

My wife troubled all last night with the toothache and this morning.
I up and to my office, where busy, and so home to dinner with my wife, who is better of her tooth than she was, and in the afternoon by agreement called on by Mr. Bland, and with him to the Ship a neighbour tavern and there met his antagonist Mr. Custos and his referee Mr. Clarke a merchant also, and begun the dispute about the freight of a ship hired by Mr. Bland to carry provisions to Tangier, and the freight is now demanded, whereas he says that the goods were some spoiled, some not delivered, and upon the whole demands 1300l. of the other, and their minds are both so high, their demands so distant, and their words so many and hot against one another that I fear we shall bring it to nothing. But however I am glad to see myself so capable of understanding the business as I find I do, and shall endeavour to do Mr. Bland all the just service I can therein.
Here we were in a bad room, which vexed me most, but we meet at another house next. So at noon I home and to my office till 9 o’clock, and so home to my wife to keep her company, arithmetique, then to supper, and to bed, she being well of her tooth again.

night tooth
bland antagonist of visions
and their distant words

I fear it as I do all
bad company


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 2 December 1663.

Up and to the office, where we sat all the morning. At noon I home to dinner with my poor wife, with whom now-a-days I enjoy great pleasure in her company and learning of Arithmetique.
After dinner I to Guild Hall to hear a tryall at King’s Bench, before Lord Chief Justice Hide, about the insurance of a ship, the same I mention in my yesterday’s journall, where everything was proved how money was so taken up upon bottomary and insurance, and the ship left by the master and seamen upon rocks, where, when the sea fell at the ebb, she must perish. The master was offered helpe, and he did give the pilotts 20 sols to drink to bid them go about their business, saying that the rocks were old, but his ship was new, and that she was repaired for 6l. and less all the damage that she received, and is now brought by one, sent for on purpose by the insurers, into the Thames, with her cargo, vessels of tallow daubed over with butter, instead of all butter, the whole not worth above 500l., ship and all, and they had took up, as appeared, above 2,400l.. He had given his men money to content them; and yet, for all this, he did bring some of them to swear that it was very stormy weather, and [they] did all they could to save her, and that she was seven feete deep water in hold, and were fain to cut her main and foremast, that the master was the last man that went out, and they were fain to force [him] out when she was ready to sink; and her rudder broke off, and she was drawn into the harbour after they were gone, as wrecke all broken, and goods lost: that she could not be carried out again without new building, and many other things so contrary as is not imaginable more. There was all the great counsel in the kingdom in the cause; but after one witnesse or two for the plaintiff, it was cried down as a most notorious cheate; and so the jury, without going out, found it for the plaintiff. But it was pleasant to see what mad sort of testimonys the seamen did give, and could not be got to speak in order: and then their terms such as the judge could not understand; and to hear how sillily the Counsel and judge would speak as to the terms necessary in the matter, would make one laugh: and above all, a Frenchman that was forced to speak in French, and took an English oathe he did not understand, and had an interpreter sworn to tell us what he said, which was the best testimony of all. So home well satisfied with this afternoon’s work, purposing to spend an afternoon or two every term so, and so to my office a while and then home to supper, arithmetique with my wife, and to bed.
I heard other causes, and saw the course of pleading by being at this trial, and heard and learnt two things: one is that every man has a right of passage in, but not a title to, any highway. The next, that the judge would not suffer Mr. Crow, who hath fined for Alderman, to be called so, but only Mister, and did eight or nine times fret at it, and stop every man that called him so.

it was the sea not a ship
that was lost

a thing as imaginable as a great plain
going out

what mad sort of testimonies
the seamen give

forced to work on a highway
that would only stop


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 1 December 1663.

Was called up by a messenger from Sir W. Pen to go with him by coach to White Hall. So I got up and went with him, and by the way he began to observe to me some unkind dealing of mine to him a weeke or two since at the table, like a coxcomb, when I answered him pretty freely that I would not think myself to owe any man the service to do this or that because they would have it so (it was about taking of a mulct upon a purser for not keeping guard at Chatham when I was there), so he talked and I talked and let fall the discourse without giving or receiving any great satisfaction, and so to other discourse, but I shall know him still for a false knave. At White Hall we met the Duke in the Matted Gallery, and there he discoursed with us; and by and by my Lord Sandwich came and stood by, and talked; but it being St. Andrew’s, and a collar-day, he went to the Chappell, and we parted. From him and Sir W. Pen and I back again and ‘light at the ‘Change, and to the Coffee-house, where I heard the best story of a cheate intended by a Master of a ship, who had borrowed twice his money upon the bottomary, and as much more insured upon his ship and goods as they were worth, and then would have cast her away upon the coast of France, and there left her, refusing any pilott which was offered him; and so the Governor of the place took her and sent her over hither to find an owner, and so the ship is come safe, and goods and all; they all worth 500l., and he had one way or other taken 3000l.. The cause is to be tried to-morrow at Guildhall, where I intend to be.
Thence home to dinner, and then with my wife to her arithmetique. In the evening came W. Howe to see me, who tells me that my Lord hath been angry three or four days with him, would not speak to him; at last did, and charged him with having spoken to me about what he had observed concerning his Lordship, which W. Howe denying stoutly, he was well at ease; and continues very quiett, and is removing from Chelsy as fast as he can, but, methinks, both by my Lord’s looks upon me to-day, or it may be it is only my doubtfulness, and by W. Howe’s discourse, my Lord is not very well pleased, nor, it may be, will be a good while, which vexes me; but I hope all will over in time, or else I am but ill rewarded for my good service.
Anon he and I to the Temple and there parted, and I to my cozen Roger Pepys, whom I met going to his chamber; he was in haste, and to go out of town tomorrow. He tells me of a letter from my father which he will keep to read to me at his coming to town again. I perceive it is about my father’s jealousys concerning my wife’s doing ill offices with me against him only from the differences they had when she was there, which he very unwisely continues to have and troubles himself and friends about to speak to me in, as my Lord Sandwich, Mr. Moore, and my cozen Roger, which vexes me, but I must impute it to his age and care for my mother and Pall and so let it go.
After little discourse with him I took coach and home, calling upon my bookseller’s for two books, Rushworth’s and Scobell’s Collections. I shall make the King pay for them. The first I spent some time at the office to read and it is an excellent book. So home and spent the evening with my wife in arithmetique, and so to supper and to bed.
I end this month with my mind in good condition for any thing else, but my unhappy adventuring to disoblige my Lord by doing him service in representing to him the discourse of the world concerning him and his affairs.

called to observe like a guard at a gallery
the art refusing to be quiet

I look over it all and let it go
my books collect time

my mind in good condition
for venturing into the world


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 30 November 1663.

(Lord’s day). This morning I put on my best black cloth suit, trimmed with scarlett ribbon, very neat, with my cloake lined with velvett, and a new beaver, which altogether is very noble, with my black silk knit canons I bought a month ago.
I to church alone, my wife not going, and there I found my Lady Batten in a velvet gown, which vexed me that she should be in it before my wife, or that I am able to put her into one, but what cannot be, cannot be. However, when I came home I told my wife of it, and to see my weaknesse, I could on the sudden have found my heart to have offered her one, but second thoughts put it by, and indeed it would undo me to think of doing as Sir W. Batten and his Lady do, who has a good estate besides his office. A good dinner we had of boeuf a la mode, but not roasted so well as my wife used to do it. So after dinner I to the French Church, but that being too far begun I came back to St. Dunstan’s by six and heard a good sermon, and so home and to my office all the evening making up my accounts of this month, and blessed be God I have got up my crumb again to 770l., the most that ever I had yet, and good clothes a great many besides, which is a great mercy of God to me.
So home to supper and to bed.

I put on my best black
trimmed with black
silk on velvet gown

but O if I could have found my heart
that blessed crumb


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 29 November 1663.

Up and at the office sat all the morning, and at noon by Mr. Coventry’s coach to the ‘Change, and after a little while there where I met with Mr. Pierce, the chyrurgeon, who tells me for good newes that my Lord Sandwich is resolved to go no more to Chelsy, and told me he believed that I had been giving my Lord some counsel, which I neither denied nor affirmed, but seemed glad with him that he went thither no more, and so I home to dinner, and thence abroad to Paul’s Church Yard, and there looked upon the second part of Hudibras, which I buy not, but borrow to read, to see if it be as good as the first, which the world cry so mightily up, though it hath not a good liking in me, though I had tried by twice or three times reading to bring myself to think it witty. Back again home and to my office, and there late doing business and so home to supper and to bed. I have been told two or three times, but to-day for certain I am told how in Holland publickly they have pictured our King with reproach. One way is with his pockets turned the wrong side outward, hanging out empty; another with two courtiers picking of his pockets; and a third, leading of two ladies, while others abuse him; which amounts to great contempt.

tell me
which neither denied nor affirmed hit
not to see

which good times to bring myself
to think of at a public hanging


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 28 November 1663.

Up and to my office, where busy with great delight all the morning, and at noon to the ‘Change, and so home to dinner with my poor wife, and with great content to my office again, and there hard at work upon stating the account of the freights due to the King from the East India Company till late at night, and so home to supper and to bed. My wife mightily pleased with my late discourse of getting a trip over to Calais, or some other port of France, the next summer, in one of the yachts, and I believe I shall do it, and it makes good sport that my mayde Jane dares not go, and Besse is wild to go, and is mad for joy, but yet will be willing to stay if Jane hath a mind, which is the best temper in this and all other things that ever I knew in my life.

ice busy with light
freights the yachts

my wild joy at this
other life


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 27 November 1663.

Up and to the office, where we sat all the morning, and at noon I to the ‘Change, and there met with Mr. Cutler the merchant, who would needs have me home to his house by the Dutch Church, and there in an old but good house, with his wife and mother, a couple of plain old women, I dined a good plain dinner, and his discourse after dinner with me upon matters of the navy victualling very good and worth my hearing, and so home to my office in the afternoon with my mind full of business, and there at it late, and so home to supper to my poor wife, and to bed, myself being in a little pain in one of my testicles, by a stroke I did give it in pulling up my breeches yesterday over-eagerly, but I will lay nothing to it till I see whether it will cease of itself or no.
The plague, it seems, grows more and more at Amsterdam; and we are going upon making of all ships coming from thence and Hambrough, or any other infected places, to perform their Quarantine (for thirty days as Sir Rd. Browne expressed it in the order of the Council, contrary to the import of the word, though in the general acceptation it signifies now the thing, not the time spent in doing it) in Holehaven, a thing never done by us before.

who needs his hearing so full of nothing
we are all infected

quarantine the word in a hole


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Thursday 26 November 1663.