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, my head full of business, and called upon also by Sir John Shaw, to whom I did give a civil answer about our prize goods, that all his dues as one of the Farmers of the Customes are paid, and showed him our Transire; with which he was satisfied, and parted, ordering his servants to see the weight of them. I to the office, and there found an order for my coming presently to the Duke of Albemarle, and what should it be, but to tell me, that, if my Lord Sandwich do not come to towne, he do resolve to go with the fleete to sea himself, the Dutch, as he thinks, being in the Downes, and so desired me to get a pleasure boat for to take him in to-morrow morning, and do many other things, and with a great liking of me, and my management especially, as that coxcombe my Lord Craven do tell me, and I perceive it, and I am sure take pains enough to deserve it.
Thence away and to the office at London, where I did some business about my money and private accounts, and there eat a bit of goose of Mr. Griffin’s, and so by water, it raining most miserably, to Greenwich, calling on several vessels in my passage. Being come there I hear another seizure hath been made of our goods by one Captain Fisher that hath been at Chatham by warrant of the Duke of Albemarle, and is come in my absence to Tooker’s and viewed them, demanding the key of the constable, and so sealed up the door. I to the house, but there being no officers nor constable could do nothing, but back to my office full of trouble about this, and there late about business, vexed to see myself fall into this trouble and concernment in a thing that I want instruction from my Lord Sandwich whether I should appear in it or no, and so home to bed, having spent two hours, I and my boy, at Mr. Glanvill’s removing of faggots to make room to remove our goods to, but when done I thought it not fit to use it.
The newes of the killing of the [King of] France is wholly untrue, and they say that of the Pope too.

out on the farm we see
the weight of the present

take pains to deserve
a bit of rain

green as the sea
having spent hours killing


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 9 October 1665.

(Lord’s day). Up and, after being trimmed, to the office, whither I upon a letter from the Duke of Albemarle to me, to order as many ships forth out of the river as I can presently, to joyne to meet the Dutch; having ordered all the Captains of the ships in the river to come to me, I did some business with them, and so to Captain Cocke’s to dinner, he being in the country. But here his brother Solomon was, and, for guests, myself, Sir G. Smith, and a very fine lady, one Mrs. Penington, and two more gentlemen. But, both [before] and after dinner, most witty discourse with this lady, who is a very fine witty lady, one of the best I ever heard speake, and indifferent handsome. There after dinner an houre or two, and so to the office, where ended my business with the Captains; and I think of twenty-two ships we shall make shift to get out seven. (God helpe us! men being sick, or provisions lacking.) And so to write letters to Sir Ph. Warwicke, Sir W. Coventry, and Sir G. Carteret to Court about the last six months’ accounts, and sent away by an express to-night.
This day I hear the Pope is dead; and one said, that the newes is, that the King of France is stabbed, but that the former is very true, which will do great things sure, as to the troubling of that part of the world, the King of Spayne being so lately dead. And one thing more, Sir Martin Noell’s lady is dead with griefe for the death of her husband and nothing else, as they say, in the world; but it seems nobody can make anything of his estate, whether he be dead worth anything or no, he having dealt in so many things, publique and private, as nobody can understand whereabouts his estate is, which is the fate of these great dealers at everything.
So after my business being done I home to my lodging and to bed.

trim as a ship out of the river
present to joy

the river her other self
witty with different hands

and visions to express
true troubling art

no grief for the body
or any private sin


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 8 October 1665.

Up and to the office along with Mr. Childe, whom I sent for to discourse about the victualling business, who will not come into partnership (no more will Captain Beckford ), but I do find him a mighty understanding man, and one I will keep a knowledge of. Did business, though not much, at the office; because of the horrible crowd and lamentable moan of the poor seamen that lie starving in the streets for lack of money. Which do trouble and perplex me to the heart; and more at noon when we were to go through them, for then a whole hundred of them followed us; some cursing, some swearing, and some praying to us.
And that that made me more troubled was a letter come this afternoon from the Duke of Albemarle, signifying the Dutch to be in sight, with 80 sayle, yesterday morning, off of Solebay, coming right into the bay. God knows what they will and may do to us, we having no force abroad able to oppose them, but to be sacrificed to them. Here come Sir W. Rider to me, whom I sent for about the victualling business also, but he neither will not come into partnership, but desires to be of the Commission if there be one. Thence back the back way to my office, where very late, very busy. But most of all when at night come two waggons from Rochester with more goods from Captain Cocke; and in houseing them at Mr. Tooker’s lodgings come two of the Custome-house to seize them, and did seize them but I showed them my ‘Transire’. However, after some hot and angry words, we locked them up, and sealed up the key, and did give it to the constable to keep till Monday, and so parted. But, Lord! to think how the poor constable come to me in the dark going home; “Sir,” says he, “I have the key, and if you would have me do any service for you, send for me betimes to-morrow morning, and I will do what you would have me.” Whether the fellow do this out of kindness or knavery, I cannot tell; but it is pretty to observe.
Talking with him in the high way, come close by the bearers with a dead corpse of the plague; but, Lord! to see what custom is, that I am come almost to think nothing of it.
So to my lodging, and there, with Mr. Hater and Will, ending a business of the state of the last six months’ charge of the Navy, which we bring to 1,000,000l. and above, and I think we do not enlarge much in it if anything. So to bed.

the lament of men that lie in the streets
some cursing
some praying

hot words locked up
the key is kindness

but close by a corpse I am come
almost to think nothing of it


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 7 October 1665.

Up, and having sent for Mr. Gawden he come to me, and he and I largely discoursed the business of his Victualling, in order to the adding of partners to him or other ways of altering it, wherein I find him ready to do anything the King would have him do. So he and I took his coach and to Lambeth and to the Duke of Albemarle about it, and so back again, where he left me. In our way discoursing of the business and contracting a great friendship with him, and I find he is a man most worthy to be made a friend, being very honest and gratefull, and in the freedom of our discourse he did tell me his opinion and knowledge of Sir W. Pen to be, what I know him to be, as false a man as ever was born, for so, it seems, he hath been to him. He did also tell me, discoursing how things are governed as to the King’s treasure, that, having occasion for money in the country, he did offer Alderman Maynell to pay him down money here, to be paid by the Receiver in some county in the country, upon whom Maynell had assignments, in whose hands the money also lay ready. But Maynell refused it, saying that he could have his money when he would, and had rather it should lie where it do than receive it here in towne this sickly time, where he hath no occasion for it. But now the evil is that he hath lent this money upon tallys which are become payable, but he finds that nobody looks after it, how long the money is unpaid, and whether it lies dead in the Receiver’s hands or no, so the King he pays Maynell 10 per cent. while the money lies in his Receiver’s hands to no purpose but the benefit of the Receiver.
I to dinner to the King’s Head with Mr. Woolly, who is come to instruct me in the business of my goods, but gives me not so good comfort as I thought I should have had. But, however, it will be well worth my time though not above 2 or 300l.. He gone I to my office, where very busy drawing up a letter by way of discourse to the Duke of Albemarle about my conception how the business of the Victualling should be ordered, wherein I have taken great pains, and I think have hitt the right if they will but follow it. At this very late and so home to our lodgings to bed.

I know what I know
to be false

how things in the hand refuse us
gives me comfort

a thought should be worth
one wing


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 6 October 1665.

Lay long in bed talking among other things of my sister Pall, and my wife of herself is very willing that I should give her 400l. to her portion, and would have her married soon as we could; but this great sicknesse time do make it unfit to send for her up.
I abroad to the office and thence to the Duke of Albemarle, all my way reading a book of Mr. Evelyn’s translating and sending me as a present, about directions for gathering a Library; but the book is above my reach, but his epistle to my Lord Chancellor is a very fine piece. When I come to the Duke it was about the victuallers’ business, to put it into other hands, or more hands, which I do advise in, but I hope to do myself a jobb of work in it. So I walked through Westminster to my old house the Swan, and there did pass some time with Sarah, and so down by water to Deptford and there to my Valentine. Round about and next door on every side is the plague, but I did not value it, but there did what I would ‘con elle’, and so away to Mr. Evelyn’s to discourse of our confounded business of prisoners, and sick and wounded seamen, wherein he and we are so much put out of order. And here he showed me his gardens, which are for variety of evergreens, and hedge of holly, the finest things I ever saw in my life. Thence in his coach to Greenwich, and there to my office, all the way having fine discourse of trees and the nature of vegetables. And so to write letters, I very late to Sir W. Coventry of great concernment, and so to my last night’s lodging, but my wife is gone home to Woolwich.
The Bill, blessed be God! is less this week by 740 of what it was the last week. Being come to my lodging I got something to eat, having eat little all the day, and so to bed, having this night renewed my promises of observing my vowes as I used to do; for I find that, since I left them off, my mind is run a’wool-gathering and my business neglected.

I am translating a library into hands

is time a prison or a garden

are trees letters to the night


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Thursday 5 October 1665.

Up and to my office, where Mr. Andrews comes, and reckoning with him I get 64l. of him. By and by comes Mr. Gawden, and reckoning with him he gives me 60l. in his account, which is a great mercy to me. Then both of them met and discoursed the business of the first man’s resigning and the other’s taking up the business of the victualling of Tangier, and I do not think that I shall be able to do as well under Mr. Gawden as under these men, or within a little as to profit and less care upon me.
Thence to the King’s Head to dinner, where we three and Creed and my wife and her woman dined mighty merry and sat long talking, and so in the afternoon broke up, and I led my wife to our lodging again, and I to the office where did much business, and so to my wife.
This night comes Sir George Smith to see me at the office, and tells me how the plague is decreased this week 740, for which God be praised! but that it encreases at our end of the town still, and says how all the towne is full of Captain Cocke’s being in some ill condition about prize-goods, his goods being taken from him, and I know not what. But though this troubles me to have it said, and that it is likely to be a business in Parliament, yet I am not much concerned at it, because yet I believe this newes is all false, for he would have wrote to me sure about it.
Being come to my wife, at our lodging, I did go to bed, and left my wife with her people to laugh and dance and I to sleep.

come a reckoning
I think I shall be able
to profit off it

the plague increases still
but like a parliament not much concerned
we laugh to sleep


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 4 October 1665.

Up, and to my great content visited betimes by Mr. Woolly, my uncle Wight’s cozen, who comes to see what work I have for him about these East India goods, and I do find that this fellow might have been of great use, and hereafter may be of very great use to me, in this trade of prize goods, and glad I am fully of his coming hither. While I dressed myself, and afterwards in walking to Greenwich we did discourse over all the business of the prize goods, and he puts me in hopes I may get some money in what I have done, but not so much as I expected, but that I may hereafter do more. We have laid a design of getting more, and are to talk again of it a few days hence.
To the office, where nobody to meet me, Sir W. Batten being the only man and he gone this day to meet to adjourne the Parliament to Oxford.
Anon by appointment comes one to tell me my Lord Rutherford is come; so I to the King’s Head to him, where I find his lady, a fine young Scotch lady, pretty handsome and plain. My wife also, and Mercer, by and by comes, Creed bringing them; and so presently to dinner and very merry; and after to even our accounts, and I to give him tallys, where he do allow me 100l., of which to my grief the rogue Creed has trepanned me out of 50l.. But I do foresee a way how it may be I may get a greater sum of my Lord to his content by getting him allowance of interest upon his tallys.
That being done, and some musique and other diversions, at last away goes my Lord and Lady, and I sent my wife to visit Mrs. Pierce, and so I to my office, where wrote important letters to the Court, and at night (Creed having clownishly left my wife), I to Mrs. Pierces and brought her and Mrs. Pierce to the King’s Head and there spent a piece upon a supper for her and mighty merry and pretty discourse, she being as pretty as ever, most of our mirth being upon “my Cozen” (meaning my Lord Bruncker’s ugly mistress, whom he calls cozen), and to my trouble she tells me that the fine Mrs. Middleton is noted for carrying about her body a continued sour base smell, that is very offensive, especially if she be a little hot. Here some bad musique to close the night and so away and all of us saw Mrs. Belle Pierce (as pretty as ever she was almost) home, and so walked to Will’s lodging where I used to lie, and there made shift for a bed for Mercer, and mighty pleasantly to bed.
This night I hear that of our two watermen that use to carry our letters, and were well on Saturday last, one is dead, and the other dying sick of the plague. The plague, though decreasing elsewhere, yet being greater about the Tower and thereabouts.

what work I do
is to get some money

but not so much that my pretty hands
come to grief

trepan my head
carrying about bad music

pierce this night
to let the plague out


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 3 October 1665.

We having sailed all night (and I do wonder how they in the dark could find the way) we got by morning to Gillingham, and thence all walked to Chatham; and there with Commissioner Pett viewed the Yard; and among other things, a teame of four horses come close by us, he being with me, drawing a piece of timber that I am confident one man could easily have carried upon his back. I made the horses be taken away, and a man or two to take the timber away with their hands. This the Commissioner did see, but said nothing, but I think had cause to be ashamed of.
We walked, he and I and Cocke, to the Hill-house, where we find Sir W. Pen in bed and there much talke and much dissembling of kindnesse from him, but he is a false rogue, and I shall not trust him, but my being there did procure his consent to have his silk carried away before the money received, which he would not have done for Cocke I am sure. Thence to Rochester, walked to the Crowne, and while dinner was getting ready, I did there walk to visit the old Castle ruines, which hath been a noble place, and there going up I did upon the stairs overtake three pretty mayds or women and took them up with me, and I did ‘baiser sur mouches et toucher leur mains’ and necks to my great pleasure: but, Lord! to see what a dreadfull thing it is to look down the precipices, for it did fright me mightily, and hinder me of much pleasure which I would have made to myself in the company of these three, if it had not been for that. The place hath been very noble and great and strong in former ages. So to walk up and down the Cathedral, and thence to the Crowne, whither Mr. Fowler, the Mayor of the towne, was come in his gowne, and is a very reverend magistrate. After I had eat a bit, not staying to eat with them, I went away, and so took horses and to Gravesend, and there staid not, but got a boat, the sicknesse being very much in the towne still, and so called on board my Lord Bruncker and Sir John Minnes, on board one of the East Indiamen at Erith, and there do find them full of envious complaints for the pillageing of the ships, but I did pacify them, and discoursed about making money of some of the goods, and do hope to be the better by it honestly. So took leave (Madam Williams being here also with my Lord), and about 8 o’clock got to Woolwich and there supped and mighty pleasant with my wife, who is, for ought I see, all friends with her mayds, and so in great joy and content to bed.

in the raw timber
I see nothing of the hill
but ruins

what a dreadful thing it is
to look down the precipice
into a grave

board on board
men full of pillage making money
of some honest joy


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 2 October 1665.

(Lord’s day). Called up about 4 of the clock and so dressed myself and so on board the Bezan, and there finding all my company asleep I would not wake them, but it beginning to be break of day I did stay upon the decke walking, and then into the Maister’s cabbin and there laid and slept a little, and so at last was waked by Captain Cocke’s calling of me, and so I turned out, and then to chat and talk and laugh, and mighty merry. We spent most of the morning talking and reading of “The Siege of Rhodes,” which is certainly (the more I read it the more I think so) the best poem that ever was wrote. We breakfasted betimes and come to the fleete about two of the clock in the afternoon, having a fine day and a fine winde. My Lord received us mighty kindly, and after discourse with us in general left us to our business, and he to his officers, having called a council of warr, we in the meantime settling of papers with Mr. Pierce and everybody else, and by and by with Captain Cuttance. Anon called down to my Lord, and there with him till supper talking and discourse; among other things, to my great joy, he did assure me that he had wrote to the King and Duke about these prize-goods, and told me that they did approve of what he had done, and that he would owne what he had done, and would have me to tell all the world so, and did, under his hand, give Cocke and me his certificate of our bargains, and giving us full power of disposal of what we have so bought. This do ease my mind of all my fear, and makes my heart lighter by 100l. than it was before. He did discourse to us of the Dutch fleete being abroad, eighty-five of them still, and are now at the Texell, he believes, in expectation of our Eastland ships coming home with masts and hempe, and our loaden Hambrough ships going to Hambrough. He discoursed against them that would have us yield to no conditions but conquest over the Dutch, and seems to believe that the Dutch will call for the protection of the King of France and come under his power, which were to be wished they might be brought to do under ours by fair means, and to that end would have all Dutch men and familys, that would come hither and settled, to be declared denizens; and my Lord did whisper to me alone that things here must break in pieces, nobody minding any thing, but every man his owne business of profit or pleasure, and the King some little designs of his owne, and that certainly the kingdom could not stand in this condition long, which I fear and believe is very true.
So to supper and there my Lord the kindest man to me, before all the table talking of me to my advantage and with tenderness too that it overjoyed me. So after supper Captain Cocke and I and Temple on board the Bezan, and there to cards for a while and then to read again in “Rhodes” and so to sleep. But, Lord! the mirth which it caused me to be waked in the night by their snoaring round about me; I did laugh till I was ready to burst, and waked one of the two companions of Temple, who could not a good while tell where he was that he heard one laugh so, till he recollected himself, and I told him what it was at, and so to sleep again, they still snoaring.

morning is the best poem
afternoon papers it over

all settled things must break in pieces
I believe in my sleep

waked in the night by snoring
I laugh to recollect it


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 1 October 1665.

Up and to the office, where busy all the morning, and at noon with Sir W. Batten to Coll. Cleggat to dinner, being invited, where a very pretty dinner to my full content and very merry. The great burden we have upon us at this time at the office, is the providing for prisoners and sicke men that are recovered, they lying before our office doors all night and all day, poor wretches. Having been on shore, the captains won’t receive them on board, and other ships we have not to put them on, nor money to pay them off, or provide for them. God remove this difficulty! This made us followed all the way to this gentleman’s house and there are waited for our coming out after dinner. Hither come Luellin to me and would force me to take Mr. Deering’s 20 pieces in gold he did offer me a good while since, which I did, yet really and sincerely against my will and content, I seeing him a man not likely to do well in his business, nor I to reap any comfort in having to do with, and be beholden to, a man that minds more his pleasure and company than his business.
Thence mighty merry and much pleased with the dinner and company and they with me I parted and there was set upon by the poor wretches, whom I did give good words and some little money to, and the poor people went away like lambs, and in good earnest are not to be censured if their necessities drive them to bad courses of stealing or the like, while they lacke wherewith to live. Thence to the office, and there wrote a letter or two and dispatched a little business, and then to Captain Cocke’s, where I find Mr. Temple, the fat blade, Sir Robert. Viner’s chief man. And we three and two companions of his in the evening by agreement took ship in the Bezan and the tide carried us no further than Woolwich about 8 at night, and so I on shore to my wife, and there to my great trouble find my wife out of order, and she took me downstairs and there alone did tell me her falling out with both her mayds and particularly Mary, and how Mary had to her teeth told her she would tell me of something that should stop her mouth and words of that sense. Which I suspect may be about Brown, but my wife prays me to call it to examination, and this, I being of myself jealous, do make me mightily out of temper, and seeing it not fit to enter into the dispute did passionately go away, thinking to go on board again. But when I come to the stairs I considered the Bezan would not go till the next ebb, and it was best to lie in a good bed and, it may be, get myself into a better humour by being with my wife. So I back again and to bed and having otherwise so many reasons to rejoice and hopes of good profit, besides considering the ill that trouble of mind and melancholly may in this sickly time bring a family into, and that if the difference were never so great, it is not a time to put away servants, I was resolved to salve up the business rather than stir in it, and so become pleasant with my wife and to bed, minding nothing of this difference. So to sleep with a good deal of content, and saving only this night and a day or two about the same business a month or six weeks ago, I do end this month with the greatest content, and may say that these last three months, for joy, health, and profit, have been much the greatest that ever I received in all my life in any twelve months almost in my life, having nothing upon me but the consideration of the sicklinesse of the season during this great plague to mortify mee. For all which the Lord God be praised!

like a blade carried in the teeth
my temper

not fit to go to bed with
if I hope to sleep


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 30 September 1665.