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.

It having been a very cold night last night I had got some cold, and so in pain by wind, and a sure precursor of pain is sudden letting off farts, and when that stops, then my passages stop and my pain begins. Up and did several businesses, and so with my wife by water to White Hall, she to her father’s, I to the Duke, where we did our usual business. And among other discourse of the Dutch, he was merrily saying how they print that Prince Rupert, Duke of Albemarle, and my Lord Sandwich, are to be Generalls; and soon after is to follow them “Vieux Pen;” and so the Duke called him in mirth Old Pen.
They have, it seems, lately wrote to the King, to assure him that their setting-out ships were only to defend their fishing-trade, and to stay near home, not to annoy the King’s subjects; and to desire that he would do the like with his ships: which the King laughs at, but yet is troubled they should think him such a child, to suffer them to bring home their fish and East India Company’s ships, and then they will not care a fart for us.
Thence to Westminster Hall, it being term time, meeting Mr. Dickering, he tells me how my Lady last week went to see Mrs. Becke, the mother; and by and by the daughter came in, but that my Lady do say herself, as he says, that she knew not for what reason, for she never knew they had a daughter, which I do not believe. She was troubled, and her heart did rise as soon as she appeared, and seems the most ugly woman that ever she saw. This if true were strange, but I believe it is not.
Thence to my Lord’s lodgings; and were merry with the young ladies, who make a great story of their appearing before their mother the morning after we carried them, the last week, home so late; and that their mother took it very well, at least without any anger. Here I heard how the rich widow, my Lady Gold, is married to one Neale, after he had received a box on the eare by her brother (who was there a sentinel, in behalf of some courtier) at the door; but made him draw, and wounded him. She called Neale up to her, and sent for a priest, married presently, and went to bed. The brother sent to the Court, and had a serjeant sent for Neale; but Neale sent for him up to be seen in bed, and she owned him for her husband: and so all is past. It seems Sir H. Bennet did look after her.
My Lady very pleasant. After dinner came in Sir Thomas Crew and Mr. Sidney, lately come from France, who is growne a little, and a pretty youth he is; but not so improved as they did give him out to be, but like a child still. But yet I can perceive he hath good parts and good inclinations.
Thence with Creed, who dined here, to Westminster to find out Mr. Hawly, and did, but he did not accept of my offer of his being steward to my Lord at sea.
Thence alone to several places about my law businesses, and with good success; at last I to Mr. Townsend at the Wardrobe, and received kind words from him to be true to me against Captain Ferrers his endeavours to get the place from my father as my Lord hath promised him.
Here met Will. Howe, and he went forth with me; and by water back to White Hall to wait on my Lord, who is come back from Hinchinbroke; where he has been about 4 or 5 days. But I was never more vexed to see how an over-officious visitt is received, for he received me with as little concernment as in the middle of his discontent, and a fool I am to be of so servile a humour, and vexed with that consideration I took coach home, and could not get it off my mind all night.
To supper and to bed, my wife finding fault with Besse for her calling upon Jane that lived with us, and there heard Mrs. Harper and her talk ill of us and not told us of it. With which I was also vexed, and told her soundly of it till she cried, poor wench, and I hope without dissimulation, and yet I cannot tell; however, I was glad to see in what manner she received it, and so to sleep.

old and in pain
I would bring my heart

ugly as the mother of a wound
to you

like the sea alone with a captain
in the middle of a sound sleep


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 20 June 1664.

(Lord’s day). Up, and all the morning and afternoon (only at dinner at home) at my office doing many businesses for want of time on the week days. In the afternoon the greatest shower of rain of a sudden and the greatest and most continued thunder that ever I heard I think in my life. In the evening home to my wife, and there talked seriously of several of our family concernments, and among others of bringing Pall out of the country to us here to try to put her off, which I am very desirous, and my wife also of. So to supper, prayers, which I have of late too much omitted. So to bed.

at dinner
sudden thunder ringing out
the prayer omitted


Erasure haiku derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 19 June 1664.

From morning till 11 at night (only a little at dinner at home) at my office very busy, setting many businesses in order to my great trouble, but great content in the end. So home to supper and to bed.
Strange to see how pert Sir W. Pen is to-day newly come from Portsmouth with his head full of great reports of his service and the state of the ships there. When that is over he will be just as another man again or worse. But I wonder whence Mr. Coventry should take all this care for him, to send for him up only to look after his Irish business with my Lord Ormond and to get the Duke’s leave for him to come with so much officiousness, when I am sure he knows him as well as I do as to his little service he do.

from morning till night a din
to trouble but content me

strange how a new mouth
is just another wonder


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 18 June 1664.

Up, and to my office, where I dispatched much business, and then down by water to Woolwich to make a discovery of a cheate providing for us in the working of some of our own ground Tows into new cordage, to be sold to us for Riga cordage.
Thence to Mr. Falconer’s, where I met Sir W. Batten and Lady, and Captain Tinker, and there dined with them, and so to the Dockyarde and to Deptford by water, and there very long informing myself in the business of flags and bewpers and other things, and so home late, being weary, and full of good information to-day, but I perceive the corruptions of the Navy are of so many kinds that it is endless to look after them, especially while such a one as Sir W. Batten discourages every man that is honest. So home to my office, there very late, and then to supper and to bed mightily troubled in my mind to hear how Sir W. Batten and Sir J. Minnes do labour all they can to abuse or enable others to abuse the King.

where do I discover
our own flag

home being weary
and full of corruption

endless to look after the rages
that nest in my mind


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 17 June 1664.

I lay in my drawers and stockings and wastecoate till five of the clock, and so up; and being well pleased with our frolique, walked to Knightsbridge, and there eat a messe of creame, and so to St. James’s, and there walked a little, and so I to White Hall, and took coach, and found my wife well got home last night, and now in bed. So I to the office, where all the morning, and at noon to the ‘Change, so home and to my office, where Mr. Ackworth came to me (though he knows himself and I know him to be a very knave), yet he came to me to discover the knavery of other people like the most honest man in the world. However, good use I shall make of his discourse, for in this he is much in the right. He being gone I to the ‘Change, Mr. Creed with me, after we had been by water to see a vessell we have hired to carry more soldiers to Tangier, and also visited a rope ground, wherein I learnt several useful things. The talk upon the ‘Change is, that De Ruyter is dead, with fifty men of his own ship, of the plague, at Cales: that the Holland Embassador here do endeavour to sweeten us with fair words; and things likely to be peaceable. Home after I had spoke with my cozen Richard Pepys upon the ‘Change, about supplying us with bewpers from Norwich, which I should be glad of, if cheap. So home to supper and bed.

my stockings
walk to white noon

cover the world
with a hired ground

useful things to air
like a cheap bed


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Thursday 16 June 1664.

Up and by appointment with Captain Witham (the Captain that brought the newes of the disaster at Tangier, where my Lord Tiviott was slain) and Mr. Tooker to Beares Quay, and there saw and more afterward at the several grannarys several parcels of oates, and strange it is to hear how it will heat itself if laid up green and not often turned. We came not to any agreement, but did cheapen several parcels, and thence away, promising to send again to them.
So to the Victualling office, and then home. And in our garden I got Captain Witham to tell me the whole story of my Lord Tiviott’s misfortune; for he was upon the guard with his horse neare the towne, when at a distance he saw the enemy appear upon a hill, a mile and a half off, and made up to them, and with much ado escaped himself; but what became of my Lord he neither knows nor thinks that any body but the enemy can tell. Our losse was about four hundred. But he tells me that the greater wonder is that my Lord Tiviott met no sooner with such a disaster; for every day he did commit himself to more probable danger than this, for now he had the assurance of all his scouts that there was no enemy thereabouts; whereas he used every day to go out with two or three with him, to make his discoveries, in greater danger, and yet the man that could not endure to have anybody else to go a step out of order to endanger himself. He concludes him to be the man of the hardest fate to lose so much honour at one blow that ever was. His relation being done he parted; and so I home to look after things for dinner. And anon at noon comes Mr. Creed by chance, and by and by the three young ladies: and very merry we were with our pasty, very well baked; and a good dish of roasted chickens; pease, lobsters, strawberries. And after dinner to cards: and about five o’clock, by water down to Greenwich; and up to the top of the hill, and there played upon the ground at cards. And so to the Cherry Garden, and then by water singing finely to the Bridge, and there landed; and so took boat again, and to Somersett House. And by this time, the tide being against us, it was past ten of the clock; and such a troublesome passage, in regard of my Lady Paulina’s fearfullness, that in all my life I never did see any poor wretch in that condition. Being come hither, there waited for them their coach; but it being so late, I doubted what to do how to get them home. After half an hour’s stay in the street, I sent my wife home by coach with Mr. Creed’s boy; and myself and Creed in the coach home with them. But, Lord! the fear that my Lady Paulina was in every step of the way; and indeed at this time of the night it was no safe thing to go that road; so that I was even afeard myself, though I appeared otherwise. — We came safe, however, to their house, where all were abed; we knocked them up, my Lady and all the family being in bed. So put them into doors; and leaving them with the mayds, bade them good night, and then into the towne, Creed and I, it being about twelve o’clock and past; and to several houses, inns, but could get no lodging, all being in bed. At the last house, at last, we found some people drinking and roaring; and there got in, and after drinking, got an ill bed, where…

when at a distance the enemy appear on a hill
it is no disaster for the hill

the water singing to the bridge
is past all fear

the night itself is safe
however we roar


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 15 June 1664.

Up and to the office, where we sat all the morning, and had great conflict about the flags again, and am vexed methought to see my Lord Berkely not satisfied with what I said, but however I stop the King’s being abused by the flag makers for the present. I do not know how it may end, but I will do my best to preserve it.
So home to dinner, and after dinner by coach to Kensington. In the way overtaking Mr. Laxton, the apothecary, with his wife and daughters, very fine young lasses, in a coach; and so both of us to my Lady Sandwich, who hath lain this fortnight here at Deane Hodges’s.
Much company came hither to-day, my Lady Carteret, &c., Sir William Wheeler and his lady, and, above all, Mr. Becke, of Chelsy, and wife and daughter, my Lord’s mistress, and one that hath not one good feature in her face, and yet is a fine lady, of a fine taille, and very well carriaged, and mighty discreet. I took all the occasion I could to discourse with the young ladies in her company to give occasion to her to talk, which now and then she did, and that mighty finely, and is, I perceive, a woman of such an ayre, as I wonder the less at my Lord’s favour to her, and I dare warrant him she hath brains enough to entangle him. Two or three houres we were in her company, going into Sir H. Finches garden, and seeing the fountayne, and singing there with the ladies, and a mighty fine cool place it is, with a great laver of water in the middle and the bravest place for musique I ever heard.
After much mirthe, discoursing to the ladies in defence of the city against the country or court, and giving them occasion to invite themselves to-morrow to me to dinner, to my venison pasty, I got their mother’s leave, and so good night, very well pleased with my day’s work, and, above all, that I have seen my Lord’s mistresse.
So home to supper, and a little at my office, and to bed.

overtaking you in a coach
the wheel of her face

you talk enough to entangle
two or three hours

finches singing
in the middle of the night


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 14 June 1664.

So up at 5 o’clock, and with Captain Taylor on board her at Deptford, and found all out of order, only the soldiers civil, and Sir Arthur Bassett a civil person. I rated at Captain Taylor, whom, contrary to my expectation, I found a lying and a very stupid blundering fellow, good for nothing, and yet we talk of him in the Navy as if he had been an excellent officer, but I find him a lying knave, and of no judgment or dispatch at all.
After finding the condition of the ship, no master, not above four men, and many ship’s provisions, sayls, and other things wanting, I went back and called upon Fudge, whom I found like a lying rogue unready to go on board, but I did so jeer him that I made him get every thing ready, and left Taylor and H. Russell to quicken him, and so away and I by water on to White Hall, where I met his Royal Highnesse at a Tangier Committee about this very thing, and did there satisfy him how things are, at which all was pacified without any trouble, and I hope may end well, but I confess I am at a real trouble for fear the rogue should not do his work, and I come to shame and losse of the money I did hope justly to have got by it.
Thence walked with Mr. Coventry to St. James’s, and there spent by his desire the whole morning reading of some old Navy books given him of old Sir John Cooke’s by the Archbishop of Canterbury that now is; wherein the order that was observed in the Navy then, above what it is now, is very observable, and fine things we did observe in our reading. Anon to dinner, after dinner to discourse of the business of the Dutch warr, wherein he tells me the Dutch do in every particular, which are but few and small things that we can demand of them, whatever cry we unjustly make, do seem to offer at an accommodation, for they do owne that it is not for their profit to have warr with England. We did also talk of a History of the Navy of England, how fit it were to be writ; and he did say that it hath been in his mind to propose to me the writing of the History of the late Dutch warr, which I am glad to hear, it being a thing I much desire, and sorts mightily with my genius; and, if well done, may recommend me much. So he says he will get me an order for making of searches to all records, &c., in order thereto, and I shall take great delight in doing of it. Thence by water down to the Tower, and thither sent for Mr. Creed to my house, where he promised to be, and he and I down to the ship, and find all things in pretty good order, and I hope will end to my mind. Thence having a gally down to Greenwich, and there saw the King’s works, which are great, a-doing there, and so to the Cherry Garden, and so carried some cherries home, and after supper to bed, my wife lying with me, which from my not being thoroughly well, nor she, we have not done above once these two or three weeks.

visions like whole books
a history of land
a history of light

where all things end in a green garden
and some cherries
my wife lying with me


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 13 June 1664.

(Lord’s day). All the morning in my chamber consulting my lesson of ship building, and at noon Mr. Creed by appointment came and dined with us, and sat talking all the afternoon till, about church time, my wife and I began our great dispute about going to Griffin’s child’s christening, where I was to have been godfather, but Sir J. Minnes refusing, he wanted an equal for me and my Lady Batten, and so sought for other. Then the question was whether my wife should go, and she having dressed herself on purpose, was very angry, and began to talk openly of my keeping her within doors before Creed, which vexed me to the guts, but I had the discretion to keep myself without passion, and so resolved at last not to go, but to go down by water, which we did by H. Russell to the Half-way house, and there eat and drank, and upon a very small occasion had a difference again broke out, where without any the least cause she had the cunning to cry a great while, and talk and blubber, which made me mighty angry in mind, but said nothing to provoke her because Creed was there, but walked home, being troubled in my mind also about the knavery and neglect of Captain Fudge and Taylor, who were to have had their ship for Tangier ready by Thursday last, and now the men by a mistake are come on board, and not any master or man or boy of the ship’s company on board with them  when we came by her side this afternoon, and also received a letter from Mr. Coventry this day in complaint of it. We came home, and after supper Creed went home, and I to bed. My wife made great means to be friends, coming to my bedside and doing all things to please me, and at last I could not hold out, but seemed pleased, and so parted, and I with much ado to sleep, but was easily wakened by extraordinary great rain, and my mind troubled the more to think what the soldiers would do on board tonight in all this weather.

the child’s question
was very angry

and began to talk openly of my guts
a cunning blubber

who let this complaint and I be friends
wakened by extraordinary weather


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 12 June 1664.

Up and to the office, where we sat all the morning, where some discourse arose from Sir G. Carteret and Mr. Coventry, which gives me occasion to think that something like a war is expected now indeed, though upon the ‘Change afterwards I hear too that an Embassador is landed from Holland, and one from their East India Company, to treat with ours about the wrongs we pretend to.
Mr. Creed dined with me, and thence after dinner by coach with my wife only to take the ayre, it being very warm and pleasant, to Bowe and Old Ford; and thence to Hackney. There ‘light, and played at shuffle-board, eat cream and good churies; and so with good refreshment home. Then to my office vexed with Captain Taylor about the delay of carrying down the ship hired by me for Tangier, and late about that and other things at the office. So home to supper and to bed.

give me a hat
like an ambassador to the air
warm and light

and I go fresh to my thin ice


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 11 June 1664.