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 (having a mighty pain in my forefinger of my left hand, from a strain that it received last night) in struggling ‘avec la femme que je’ mentioned yesterday, where busy till noon, and then my wife being busy in going with her woman to a hot-house to bathe herself, after her long being within doors in the dirt, so that she now pretends to a resolution of being hereafter very clean. How long it will hold I can guess. I dined with Sir W. Batten and my Lady, they being now a’days very fond of me.
So to the ‘Change, and off of the ‘Change with Mr. Wayth to a cook’s shop, and there dined again for discourse with him about Hamaccos and the abuse now practised in tickets, and more like every day to be. Also of the great profit Mr. Fen makes of his place, he being, though he demands but 5 per cent. of all he pays, and that is easily computed, but very little pleased with any man that gives him no more.
So to the office, and after office my Lord Brunkerd carried me to Lincolne’s Inne Fields, and there I with my Lady Sandwich (good lady) talking of innocent discourse of good housewifery and husbands for her daughters, and the luxury and looseness of the times and other such things till past 10 o’clock at night, and so by coach home, where a little at my office, and so to supper and to bed.
My Lady tells me how my Lord Castlemayne is coming over from France, and is believed will be made friends with his Lady again.
What mad freaks the Mayds of Honour at Court have: that Mrs. Jenings, one of the Duchesses mayds, the other day dressed herself like an orange wench, and went up and down and cried oranges; till falling down, or by such accident, though in the evening, her fine shoes were discerned, and she put to a great deale of shame.
That such as these tricks being ordinary, and worse among them, thereby few will venture upon them for wives: my Lady Castlemayne will in merriment say that her daughter (not above a year old or two) will be the first mayde in the Court that will be married.
This day my Lord Sandwich writ me word from the Downes, that he is like to be in towne this week.

pain in my hand
from struggling with doors in the dirt

how I hold it now
like a leased field

where oranges fall in the evening
and few venture upon them


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 21 February 1665.

Up, and with Sir J. Minnes to attend the Duke, and then we back again and rode into the beginning of my Lord Chancellor’s new house, near St. James’s; which common people have already called Dunkirke-house, from their opinion of his having a good bribe for the selling of that towne. And very noble I believe it will be. Near that is my Lord Barkeley beginning another on one side, and Sir J. Denham on the other. Thence I to the House of Lords and spoke with my Lord Bellasses, and so to the ‘Change, and there did business, and so to the Sun taverne, haling in the morning had some high words with Sir J. Lawson about his sending of some bayled goods to Tangier, wherein the truth is I did not favour him, but being conscious that some of my profits may come out by some words that fell from him, and to be quiet, I have accommodated it. Here we dined merry; but my club and the rest come to 7s. 6d., which was too much. Thence to the office, and there found Bagwell’s wife, whom I directed to go home, and I would do her business, which was to write a letter to my Lord Sandwich for her husband’s advance into a better ship as there should be occasion. Which I did, and by and by did go down by water to Deptford, and then down further, and so landed at the lower end of the town, and it being dark ‘entrer en la maison de la femme de Bagwell’, and there had ‘sa compagnie’, though with a great deal of difficulty, ‘neanmoins en fin j’avais ma volont d’elle’, and being sated therewith, I walked home to Redriffe, it being now near nine o’clock, and there I did drink some strong waters and eat some bread and cheese, and so home. Where at my office my wife comes and tells me that she hath hired a chamber mayde, one of the prettiest maydes that ever she saw in her life, and that she is really jealous of me for her, but hath ventured to hire her from month to month, but I think she means merrily. So to supper and to bed.

common people have
their own lord the sun
high but quiet as a well

I would write a letter
to a better lower one
and venture to hire her
from month to month


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 20 February 1665.

Lay in bed, it being Lord’s day, all the morning talking with my wife, sometimes pleased, sometimes displeased, and then up and to dinner. All the afternoon also at home, and Sir W. Batten’s, and in the evening comes Mr. Andrews, and we sung together, and then to supper, he not staying, and at supper hearing by accident of my mayds their letting in a rogueing Scotch woman that haunts the office, to helpe them to washe and scoure in our house, and that very lately, I fell mightily out, and made my wife, to the disturbance of the house and neighbours, to beat our little girle, and then we shut her down into the cellar, and there she lay all night. So we to bed.

sometimes pleased sometimes eased
evening comes by accident

let Scotch haunt
and scour our house

I fell and made my disturbance
beat her down in the cellar


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 19 February 1665.

Up, and to the office, where sat all the morning; at noon to the ‘Change, and thence to the Royall Oake taverne in Lumbard Streete, where Sir William Petty and the owners of the double-bottomed boat (the Experiment) did entertain my Lord Brunkard, Sir R. Murrey, myself, and others, with marrow bones and a chine of beefe of the victuals they have made for this ship; and excellent company and good discourse: but, above all, I do value Sir William Petty.
Thence home; and took my Lord Sandwich’s draught of the harbour of Portsmouth down to Ratcliffe, to one Burston, to make a plate for the King, and another for the Duke, and another for himself; which will be very neat.
So home, and till almost one o’clock in the morning at my office, and then home to supper and to bed.
My Lord Sandwich, and his fleete of twenty-five ships in the Downes, returned from cruising, but could not meet with any Dutchmen.

I experiment with marrow bones
and a mad mouth

one plate for the king
and another for the clock

and then home to supper
and my sandwich hips sing


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 18 February 1665.

Up, and it being bitter cold, and frost and snow, which I had thought had quite left us, I by coach to Povy’s, where he told me, as I knew already, how he was handled the other day, and is still, by my Lord Barkeley, and among other things tells me, what I did not know, how my Lord Barkeley will say openly, that he hath fought more set fields than any man in England hath done. I did my business with him, which was to get a little sum of money paid, and so home with Mr. Andrews, who met me there, and there to the office. At noon home and there found Lewellin, which vexed me out of my old jealous humour. So to my office, where till 12 at night, being only a little while at noon at Sir W. Batten’s to see him, and had some high words with Sir J. Minnes about Sir W. Warren, he calling him cheating knave, but I cooled him, and at night at Sir W. Pen’s, he being to go to Chatham to-morrow. So home to supper and to bed.

bitter and old
how I still bark and bark

open fields get me
out of my jealous office

a night at noon calling
eating me up


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 17 February 1665.

Up, and with Mr. Andrews to White Hall, where a Committee of Tangier, and there I did our victuallers’ business for some more money, out of which I hope to get a little, of which I was glad; but, Lord! to see to what a degree of contempt, nay, scorn, Mr. Povy, through his prodigious folly, hath brought himself in his accounts, that if he be not a man of a great interest, he will be kicked out of his employment for a foole, is very strange, and that most deservedly that ever man was, for never any man, that understands accounts so little, ever went through so much, and yet goes through it with the greatest shame and yet with confidence that ever I saw man in my life. God deliver me in my owne business of my bill out of his hands, and if ever I foul my fingers with him again let me suffer for it!
Back to the ‘Change, and thence home to dinner, where Mrs. Hunt dined with me, and poor Mrs. Batters; who brought her little daughter with her, and a letter from her husband, wherein, as a token, the foole presents me very seriously with his daughter for me to take the charge of bringing up for him, and to make my owne. But I took no notice to her at all of the substance of the letter, but fell to discourse, and so went away to the office, where all the afternoon till almost one in the morning, and then home to bed.

I get a prodigious kick out of shame
my own hands foul my fingers

let me suffer for it a little
let me make my own afternoon bed


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Thursday 16 February 1665.

Up and to my office, where busy all the morning. At noon with Creed to dinner to Trinity-house, where a very good dinner among the old sokers, where an extraordinary discourse of the manner of the loss of the “Royall Oake” coming home from Bantam, upon the rocks of Scilly, many passages therein very extraordinary, and if I can I will get it in writing.
Thence with Creed to Gresham College, where I had been by Mr. Povy the last week proposed to be admitted a member; and was this day admitted, by signing a book and being taken by the hand by the President, my Lord Brunkard, and some words of admittance said to me. But it is a most acceptable thing to hear their discourse, and see their experiments; which were this day upon the nature of fire, and how it goes out in a place where the ayre is not free, and sooner out where the ayre is exhausted, which they showed by an engine on purpose. After this being done, they to the Crowne Taverne, behind the ‘Change, and there my Lord and most of the company to a club supper; Sir P. Neale, Sir R. Murrey, Dr. Clerke, Dr. Whistler, Dr. Goddard, and others of most eminent worth. Above all, Mr. Boyle to-day was at the meeting, and above him Mr. Hooke, who is the most, and promises the least, of any man in the world that ever I saw. Here excellent discourse till ten at night, and then home, and to Sir W. Batten’s, where I hear that Sir Thos. Harvy intends to put Mr. Turner out of his house and come in himself, which will be very hard to them, and though I love him not, yet for his family’s sake I pity him. So home and to bed.

the old oak rocks
taken by fire and exhaust

how an engine promises
the least world

a house which will be
very hard to love


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 15 February 1665.

(St. Valentine). This morning comes betimes Dicke Pen, to be my wife’s Valentine, and come to our bedside. By the same token, I had him brought to my side, thinking to have made him kiss me; but he perceived me, and would not; so went to his Valentine: a notable, stout, witty boy. I up about business, and, opening the door, there was Bagwell’s wife, with whom I talked afterwards, and she had the confidence to say she came with a hope to be time enough to be my Valentine, and so indeed she did, but my oath preserved me from loosing any time with her, and so I and my boy abroad by coach to Westminster, where did two or three businesses, and then home to the ‘Change, and did much business there. My Lord Sandwich is, it seems, with his fleete at Alborough Bay. So home to dinner and then to the office, where till 12 almost at night, and then home to supper and to bed.

this token kiss is not
an open door
a hope preserve
or sin to us
it is fleet
home and then off


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 14 February 1665.

Up and to St. James’s, did our usual business before the Duke. Thence I to Westminster and by water (taking Mr. Stapely the rope-maker by the way), to his rope-ground and to Limehouse, there to see the manner of stoves and did excellently inform myself therein, and coming home did go on board Sir W. Petty’s “Experiment,” which is a brave roomy vessel, and I hope may do well. So went on shore to a Dutch [house] to drink some mum, and there light upon some Dutchmen, with whom we had good discourse touching stoveing and making of cables. But to see how despicably they speak of us for our using so many hands more to do anything than they do, they closing a cable with 20, that we use 60 men upon.
Thence home and eat something, and then to my office, where very late, and then to supper and to bed. Captain Stokes, it seems, is at last dead at Portsmouth.

taking the rope-maker
to his rope-ground
and the stove
to drink some light

we touch and see
how they speak of us
our hands
more than the mouth


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 13 February 1665.

(Lord’s day). Up and to church to St. Lawrence to hear Dr. Wilkins, the great scholar, for curiosity, I having never heard him: but was not satisfied with him at all, only a gentleman sat in the pew I by chance sat in, that sang most excellently, and afterward I found by his face that he had been a Paul’s scholler, but know not his name, and I was also well pleased with the church, it being a very fine church. So home to dinner, and then to my office all the afternoon doing of business, and in the evening comes Mr. Hill (but no Andrews) and we spent the evening very finely, singing, supping and discoursing. Then to prayers and to bed.

a wren for curiosity
is most excellent
a scholar of the afternoon hill
supping and discoursing


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 12 February 1665.