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.

The office now not sitting, but only hereafter on Thursdays at the office, I within all the morning about my papers and setting things still in order, and also much time in settling matters with Dr. Twisden. At noon am sent for by Sir G. Carteret, to meet him and my Lord Hinchingbroke at Deptford, but my Lord did not come thither, he having crossed the river at Gravesend to Dagenhams, whither I dare not follow him, they being afeard of me; but Sir G. Carteret says, he is a most sweet youth in every circumstance. Sir G. Carteret being in haste of going to the Duke of Albemarle and the Archbishop, he was pettish, and so I could not fasten any discourse, but take another time. So he gone, I down to Greenwich and sent away the Bezan, thinking to go with my wife to-night to come back again to-morrow night to the Soveraigne at the buoy off the Nore. Coming back to Deptford, old Bagwell walked a little way with me, and would have me in to his daughter’s, and there he being gone ‘dehors, ego had my volunte de su hiza’. Eat and drank and away home, and after a little at the office to my chamber to put more things still in order, and late to bed.
The people die so, that now it seems they are fain to carry the dead to be buried by day-light, the nights not sufficing to do it in. And my Lord Mayor commands people to be within at nine at night all, as they say, that the sick may have liberty to go abroad for ayre. There is one also dead out of one of our ships at Deptford, which troubles us mightily; the Providence fire-ship, which was just fitted to go to sea. But they tell me to-day no more sick on board. And this day W. Bodham tells me that one is dead at Woolwich, not far from the Rope-yard. I am told, too, that a wife of one of the groomes at Court is dead at Salsbury; so that the King and Queene are speedily to be all gone to Milton. God preserve us!

within the river
is a sweet green night
and a rank day

and people say
there is also a ship
which was fitted to go to the dead


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 12 August 1665.

Up, and all day long finishing and writing over my will twice, for my father and my wife, only in the morning a pleasant rencontre happened in having a young married woman brought me by her father, old Delkes, that carries pins always in his mouth, to get her husband off that he should not go to sea, ‘une contre pouvait avoir done any cose cum else, but I did nothing, si ni baisser her’. After they were gone my mind run upon having them called back again, and I sent a messenger to Blackwall, but he failed. So I lost my expectation. I to the Exchequer, about striking new tallys, and I find the Exchequer, by proclamation, removing to Nonesuch.
Back again and at my papers, and putting up my books into chests, and settling my house and all things in the best and speediest order I can, lest it should please God to take me away, or force me to leave my house.
Late up at it, and weary and full of wind, finding perfectly that so long as I keepe myself in company at meals and do there eat lustily (which I cannot do alone, having no love to eating, but my mind runs upon my business), I am as well as can be, but when I come to be alone, I do not eat in time, nor enough, nor with any good heart, and I immediately begin to be full of wind, which brings my pain, till I come to fill my belly a-days again, then am presently well.

a man that carries pins in his mouth
should not go to sea

my chest full of wind
I cannot fill my belly


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 11 August 1665.

Up betimes, and called upon early by my she-cozen Porter, the turner’s wife, to tell me that her husband was carried to the Tower, for buying of some of the King’s powder, and would have my helpe, but I could give her none, not daring any more to appear in the business, having too much trouble lately therein. By and by to the office, where we sat all the morning; in great trouble to see the Bill this week rise so high, to above 4,000 in all, and of them above 3,000 of the plague. And an odd story of Alderman Bence’s stumbling at night over a dead corps in the streete, and going home and telling his wife, she at the fright, being with child, fell sicke and died of the plague. We sat late, and then by invitation my Lord Brunker, Sir J. Minnes, Sir W. Batten and I to Sir G. Smith’s to dinner, where very good company and good cheer. Captain Cocke was there and Jacke Fenn, but to our great wonder Alderman Bence, and tells us that not a word of all this is true, and others said so too, but by his owne story his wife hath been ill, and he fain to leave his house and comes not to her, which continuing a trouble to me all the time I was there.
Thence to the office and, after writing letters, home, to draw over anew my will, which I had bound myself by oath to dispatch by to-morrow night; the town growing so unhealthy, that a man cannot depend upon living two days to an end. So having done something of it, I to bed.

night
over a corpse in the street

and at the fright
over my oath
a wing


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Thursday 10 August 1665.

Up betimes to my office, where Tom Hater to the writing of letters with me, which have for a good while been in arreare, and we close at it all day till night, only made a little step out for half an houre in the morning to the Exchequer about striking of tallys, but no good done therein, people being most out of towne.
At noon T. Hater dined with me, and so at it all the afternoon. At night home and supped, and after reading a little in Cowley’s poems, my head being disturbed with overmuch business to-day, I to bed.

ice letters
close all day
night striking out at noon
in the owl’s poems


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 9 August 1665.

Up and to the office, where all the morning we sat. At noon I home to dinner alone, and after dinner Bagwell’s wife waited at the door, and went with me to my office, en lequel jo haze todo which I had a corazón a hazer con ella. So parted, and I to Sir W. Batten’s, and there sat the most of the afternoon talking and drinking too much with my Lord Bruncker, Sir G. Smith, G. Cocke and others very merry. I drunk a little mixed, but yet more than I should do. So to my office a little, and then to the Duke of Albemarle’s about some business. The streets mighty empty all the way, now even in London, which is a sad sight. And to Westminster Hall, where talking, hearing very sad stories from Mrs. Mumford; among others, of Mrs. Michell’s son’s family. And poor Will, that used to sell us ale at the Hall-door, his wife and three children died, all, I think, in a day. So home through the City again, wishing I may have taken no ill in going; but I will go, I think, no more thither.
Late at the office, and then home to supper, having taken a pullet home with me, and then to bed.
The news of De Ruyter’s coming home is certain; and told to the great disadvantage of our fleete, and the praise of De Ruyter; but it cannot be helped, nor do I know what to say to it.

in the haze of the afternoon
drinking too much
my empty wishing


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 8 August 1665.

Up, and with great pleasure looking over my wife’s pictures, and then to see my Lady Pen, whom I have not seen since her coming hither, and after being a little merry with her, she went forth and I staid there talking with Mrs. Pegg and looking over her pictures, and commended them; but, Lord! so far short of my wife’s, as no comparison. Thence to my wife, and there spent, talking, till noon, when by appointment Mr. Andrews come out of the country to speake with me about their Tangier business, and so having done with him and dined, I home by water, where by appointment I met Dr. Twisden, Mr. Povy, Mr. Lawson, and Stockdale about settling their business of money; but such confusion I never met with, nor could anything be agreed on, but parted like a company of fools, I vexed to lose so much time and pains to no purpose.
They gone, comes Rayner, the boatmaker, about some business, and brings a piece of plate with him, which I refused to take of him, thinking indeed that the poor man hath no reason nor encouragement from our dealings with him to give any of us any presents. He gone, there comes Luellin, about Mr. Deering’s business of planke, to have the contract perfected, and offers me twenty pieces in gold, as Deering had done some time since himself, but I both then and now refused it, resolving not to be bribed to dispatch business, but will have it done however out of hand forthwith.
So he gone, I to supper and to bed.

pleasure is a spent country
having laws but no art

like pain
which the poor have perfected
and now refuse out of hand


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 7 August 1665.

(Lord’s day). Dressed and had my head combed by my little girle, to whom I confess ‘que je sum demasiado kind, nuper ponendo mes mains in su des choses de son breast, mais il faut que je’ leave it lest it bring me to ‘alcun major inconvenience’. So to my business in my chamber, look over and settling more of my papers than I could the two last days I have spent about them. In the evening, it raining hard, down to Woolwich, where after some little talk to bed.

head combed by my girl
to whom I am an ape
I rain down wool


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 6 August 1665.

In the morning up, and my wife showed me several things of her doing, especially one fine woman’s Persian head mighty finely done, beyond what I could expect of her; and so away by water, having ordered in the yarde six or eight bargemen to be whipped, who had last night stolen some of the King’s cordage from out of the yarde.
I to Deptford, and there by agreement met with my Lord Bruncker, and there we kept our office, he and I, and did what there was to do, and at noon parted to meet at the office next week. Sir W. Warren and I thence did walk through the rain to Half-Way House, and there I eat a piece of boiled beef and he and I talked over several businesses, among others our design upon the mast docke, which I hope to compass and get 2 or 300l. by.
Thence to Redriffe, where we parted, and I home, where busy all the afternoon. Stepped to Colvill’s to set right a business of money, where he told me that for certain De Ruyter is come home, with all his fleete, which is very ill newes, considering the charge we have been at in keeping a fleete to the northward so long, besides the great expectation of snapping him, wherein my Lord Sandwich will I doubt suffer some dishonour.
I am told also of a great ryott upon Thursday last in Cheapside; Colonell Danvers, a delinquent, having been taken, and in his way to the Tower was rescued from the captain of the guard, and carried away; only one of the rescuers being taken.
I am told also that the Duke of Buckingham is dead, but I know not of a certainty. So home and very late at letters, and then home to supper and to bed.

I could expect to age
or boil over

a compass busy with the north
napping in a riot

having been rescued from the dead
I know no certainty


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 5 August 1665.

Up at five o’clock, and by six walked out alone, with my Lady Slanning, to the Docke Yard, where walked up and down, and so to Mr. Pett’s, who led us into his garden, and there the lady, the best humoured woman in the world, and a devout woman (I having spied her on her knees half an houre this morning in her chamber), clambered up to the top of the banquetting-house to gather nuts, and mighty merry, and so walked back again through the new rope house, which is very usefull; and so to the Hill-house to breakfast and mighty merry. Then they took coach, and Sir G. Carteret kissed me himself heartily, and my Lady several times, with great kindnesse, and then the young ladies, and so with much joy, bade “God be with you!” and an end I think it will be to my mirthe for a great while, it having been the passage of my whole life the most pleasing for the time, considering the quality and nature of the business, and my noble usage in the doing of it, and very many fine journys, entertainments and great company.
I returned into the house for a while to do business there with Commissioner Pett, and there with the officers of the Chest, where I saw more of Sir W. Batten’s business than ever I did before, for whereas he did own once under his hand to them that he was accountable for 2200l., of which he had yet paid but 1600l., he writes them a letter lately that he hath but about 50l. left that is due to the Chest, but I will do something in it and that speedily.
That being done I took horse, and Mr. Barrow with me bore me company to Gravesend, discoursing of his business, wherein I vexed him, and he me, I seeing his frowardness, but yet that he is in my conscience a very honest man, and some good things he told me, which I shall remember to the King’s advantage.
There I took boat alone, and, the tide being against me, landed at Blackwall and walked to Wapping, Captain Bowd whom I met with talking with me all the way, who is a sober man. So home, and found all things well, and letters from Dover that my Lord Hinchingbroke is arrived at Dover, and would be at Scott’s hall this night, where the whole company will meet. I wish myself with them. After writing a few letters I took boat and down to Woolwich very late, and there found my wife and her woman upon the key hearing a fellow in a barge, that lay by, fiddle. So I to them and in, very merry, and to bed, I sleepy and weary.

alone on top of the house
God will be my whole company

under his hand
will I see all things

at night will I hear
a fiddle sleep


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 4 August 1665.

Up, and betimes to Deptford to Sir G. Carteret’s, where, not liking the horse that had been hired by Mr. Uthwayt for me, I did desire Sir G. Carteret to let me ride his new 40l. horse, which he did, and so I left my ‘hacquenee’ behind, and so after staying a good while in their bedchamber while they were dressing themselves, discoursing merrily, I parted and to the ferry, where I was forced to stay a great while before I could get my horse brought over, and then mounted and rode very finely to Dagenhams; all the way people, citizens, walking to and again to enquire how the plague is in the City this week by the Bill; which by chance, at Greenwich, I had heard was 2,020 of the plague, and 3,000 and odd of all diseases; but methought it was a sad question to be so often asked me. Coming to Dagenhams, I there met our company coming out of the house, having staid as long as they could for me; so I let them go a little before, and went and took leave of my Lady Sandwich, good woman, who seems very sensible of my service in this late business, and having her directions in some things, among others, to get Sir G. Carteret and my Lord to settle the portion, and what Sir G. Carteret is to settle, into land, soon as may be, she not liking that it should lie long undone, for fear of death on either side. So took leave of her, and then down to the buttery, and eat a piece of cold venison pie, and drank and took some bread and cheese in my hand; and so mounted after them, Mr. Marr very kindly staying to lead me the way. By and by met my Lord Crew returning, after having accompanied them a little way, and so after them, Mr. Marr telling me by the way how a mayde servant of Mr. John Wright’s (who lives thereabouts) falling sick of the plague, she was removed to an out-house, and a nurse appointed to look to her; who, being once absent, the mayde got out of the house at the window, and run away. The nurse coming and knocking, and having no answer, believed she was dead, and went and told Mr. Wright so; who and his lady were in great strait what to do to get her buried. At last resolved to go to Burntwood hard by, being in the parish, and there get people to do it. But they would not; so he went home full of trouble, and in the way met the wench walking over the common, which frighted him worse than before; and was forced to send people to take her, which he did; and they got one of the pest coaches and put her into it to carry her to a pest house. And passing in a narrow lane, Sir Anthony Browne, with his brother and some friends in the coach, met this coach with the curtains drawn close. The brother being a young man, and believing there might be some lady in it that would not be seen, and the way being narrow, he thrust his head out of his own into her coach, and to look, and there saw somebody look very ill, and in a sick dress, and stunk mightily; which the coachman also cried out upon. And presently they come up to some people that stood looking after it, and told our gallants that it was a mayde of Mr. Wright’s carried away sick of the plague; which put the young gentleman into a fright had almost cost him his life, but is now well again.
I, overtaking our young people, ‘light, and into the coach to them, where mighty merry all the way; and anon come to the Blockehouse, over against Gravesend, where we staid a great while, in a little drinking-house. Sent back our coaches to Dagenhams. I, by and by, by boat to Gravesend, where no newes of Sir G. Carteret come yet; so back again, and fetched them all over, but the two saddle-horses that were to go with us, which could not be brought over in the horseboat, the wind and tide being against us, without towing; so we had some difference with some watermen, who would not tow them over under 20s., whereupon I swore to send one of them to sea and will do it. Anon some others come to me and did it for 10s. By and by comes Sir G. Carteret, and so we set out for Chatham: in my way overtaking some company, wherein was a lady, very pretty, riding singly, her husband in company with her. We fell into talke, and I read a copy of verses which her husband showed me, and he discommended, but the lady commended: and I read them, so as to make the husband turn to commend them. By and by he and I fell into acquaintance, having known me formerly at the Exchequer. His name is Nokes, over against Bow Church. He was servant to Alderman Dashwood. We promised to meet, if ever we come both to London again; and, at parting, I had a fair salute on horseback, in Rochester streets, of the lady, and so parted.
Come to Chatham mighty merry, and anon to supper, it being near 9 o’clock ere we come thither. My Lady Carteret come thither in a coach, by herself, before us. Great mind they have to buy a little ‘hacquenee’ that I rode on from Greenwich, for a woman’s horse. Mighty merry, and after supper, all being withdrawn, Sir G. Carteret did take an opportunity to speak with much value and kindness to me, which is of great joy to me. So anon to bed. Mr. Brisband and I together to my content.

not liking the horse desire
I walk out

not liking death
I eat a piece of pie

who lives in an outhouse
so he would not be seen

thrust his head
into the grave

we drink and talk
and read verses in the street


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Thursday 3 August 1665.