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.

At the office all the morning. Sir G. Carteret, upon a motion of Sir W. Batten’s, did promise, if we would write a letter to him, to shew it to the King on our behalf touching our desire of being Commissioners of the Prize office. I wrote a letter to my mind and, after eating a bit at home (Mr. Sheply dining and taking his leave of me), abroad and to Sir G. Carteret with the letter and thence to my Lord Treasurer’s; wherewith Sir Philip Warwicke long studying all we could to make the last year swell as high as we could. And it is much to see how he do study for the King, to do it to get all the money from the Parliament all he can: and I shall be serviceable to him therein, to help him to heads upon which to enlarge the report of the expense. He did observe to me how obedient this Parliament was for awhile, and the last sitting how they begun to differ, and to carp at the King’s officers; and what they will do now, he says, is to make agreement for the money, for there is no guess to be made of it. He told me he was prepared to convince the Parliament that the Subsidys are a most ridiculous tax (the four last not rising to 40,000l.), and unequall. He talks of a tax of Assessment of 70,000l. for five years; the people to be secured that it shall continue no longer than there is really a warr; and the charges thereof to be paid.
He told me, that one year of the late Dutch warr cost 1,623,000l. Thence to my Lord Chancellor’s, and there staid long with Sir W. Batten and Sir J. Minnes, to speak with my lord about our Prize Office business; but, being sicke and full of visitants, we could not speak with him, and so away home.
Where Sir Richard Ford did meet us with letters from Holland this day, that it is likely the Dutch fleete will not come out this year; they have not victuals to keep them out, and it is likely they will be frozen before they can get back.
Captain Cocke is made Steward for sick and wounded seamen.
So home to supper, where troubled to hear my poor boy Tom has a fit of the stone, or some other pain like it. I must consult Mr. Holliard for him.
So at one in the morning home to bed.

touching the head of the king
for this
they wounded a stone


Erasure haiku derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 22 November 1664.

Up, and with them to the Lords at White Hall, where they do single me out to speake to and to hear, much to my content, and received their commands, particularly in several businesses. Thence by their order to the Attorney General’s about a new warrant for Captain Taylor which I shall carry for him to be Commissioner in spite of Sir W. Batten, and yet indeed it is not I, but the ability of the man, that makes the Duke and Mr. Coventry stand by their choice.
I to the ‘Change and there staid long doing business, and this day for certain newes is come that Teddiman hath brought in eighteen or twenty Dutchmen, merchants, their Bourdeaux fleete, and two men of warr to Portsmouth. And I had letters this afternoon, that three are brought into the Downes and Dover; so that the warr is begun: God give a good end to it!
After dinner at home all the afternoon busy, and at night with Sir W. Batten and Sir J. Minnes looking over the business of stating the accounts of the navy charge to my Lord Treasurer, where Sir J. Minnes’s paper served us in no stead almost, but was all false, and after I had done it with great pains, he being by, I am confident he understands not one word in it. At it till 10 at night almost.
Thence by coach to Sir Philip Warwicke’s, by his desire to have conferred with him, but he being in bed, I to White Hall to the Secretaries, and there wrote to Mr. Coventry, and so home by coach again, a fine clear moonshine night, but very cold.
Home to my office awhile, it being past 12 at night; and so to supper and to bed.

the received spit
of news in the mouth
War Moon


Erasure haiku derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 21 November 1664.

(Lord’s day). Up, and with my wife to church, where Pegg Pen very fine in her new coloured silk suit laced with silver lace. Dined at home, and Mr. Sheply, lately come to town, with me. A great deal of ordinary discourse with him. Among other things praying him to speak to Stankes to look after our business. With him and in private with Mr. Bodham talking of our ropeyarde stores at Woolwich, which are mighty low, even to admiration. They gone, in the evening comes Mr. Andrews and sings with us, and he gone, I to Sir W. Batten’s, where Sir J. Minnes and he and I to talk about our letter to my Lord Treasurer, where his folly and simple confidence so great in a report so ridiculous that he hath drawn up to present to my Lord, nothing of it being true, that I was ashamed, and did roundly and in many words for an houre together talk boldly to him, which pleased Sir W. Batten and my Lady, but I was in the right, and was the willinger to do so before them, that they might see that I am somebody, and shall serve him so in his way another time.
So home vexed at this night’s passage, for I had been very hot with him, so to supper and to bed, out of order with this night’s vexation.

church laced
with silver discourse
praying look after our rope

to sing
is a simple thing
true and round as time


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 20 November 1664.

All the morning at the office, and without dinner down by galley up and down the river to visit the yards and ships now ordered forth with great delight, and so home to supper, and then to office late to write letters, then home to bed.

the Dow down
the river is red with light
a late rite


Erasure haiku derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 19 November 1664.

Up and to the office, and thence to the Committee of the Fishery at White Hall, where so poor simple doings about the business of the Lottery, that I was ashamed to see it, that a thing so low and base should have any thing to do with so noble an undertaking.
But I had the advantage this day to hear Mr. Williamson discourse, who come to be a contractor with others for the Lotterys, and indeed I find he is a very logicall man and a good speaker.
But it was so pleasant to see my Lord Craven, the chaireman, before many persons of worth and grave, use this comparison in saying that certainly these that would contract for all the lotteries would not suffer us to set up the Virginia lottery for plate before them, “For,” says he, “if I occupy a wench first, you may occupy her again your heart but you can never have her maidenhead after I have once had it,” which he did more loosely, and yet as if he had fetched a most grave and worthy instance. They made mirth, but I and others were ashamed of it.
Thence to the ‘Change and thence home to dinner, and thence to the office a good while, and thence to the Council chamber at White Hall to speake with Sir G. Carteret, and here by accident heard a great and famous cause between Sir G. Lane and one Mr. Phill. Whore, an Irish business about Sir G. Lane’s endeavouring to reverse a decree of the late Commissioners of Ireland in a Rebells case for his land, which the King had given as forfeited to Sir G. Lane, for whom the Sollicitor did argue most angell like, and one of the Commissioners, Baron, did argue for the other and for himself and his brethren who had decreed it. But the Sollicitor do so pay the Commissioners, how four all along did act for the Papists, and three only for the Protestants, by which they were overvoted, but at last one word (which was omitted in the Sollicitor’s repeating of an Act of Parliament in the case) being insisted on by the other part, the Sollicitor was put to a great stop, and I could discern he could not tell what to say, but was quite out. Thence home well pleased with this accident, and so home to my office, where late, and then to supper and to bed.
This day I had a letter from Mr. Coventry, that tells me that my Lord Brunkard is to be one of our Commissioners, of which I am very glad, if any more must be.

this grave I occupy
you may have after me
by accident or angel
like a long last word
I could not say and so
must be


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 18 November 1664.

Up and to my office, and there all the morning mighty busy, and taking upon me to tell the Comptroller how ill his matters were done, and I think indeed if I continue thus all the business of the office will come upon me whether I will or no.
At noon to the ‘Change, and then home with Creed to dinner, and thence I to the office, where close at it all the afternoon till 12 at night, and then home to supper and to bed.
This day I received from Mr. Foley, but for me to pay for it, if I like it, an iron chest, having now received back some money I had laid out for the King, and I hope to have a good sum of money by me, thereby, in a few days, I think above 800l. But when I come home at night, I could not find the way to open it; but, which is a strange thing, my little girle Susan could carry it alone from one table clear from the ground and set upon another, when neither I nor anyone in my house but Jane the cook-mayde could do it.

how do I continue to lose it all
after night received me
like a strange ear
from the ground up


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Thursday 17 November 1664.

My wife not being well, waked in the night, and strange to see how dead sleep our people sleep that she was fain to ring an hour before any body would wake. At last one rose and helped my wife, and so to sleep again.
Up and to my business, and then to White Hall, there to attend the Lords Commissioners, and so directly home and dined with Sir W. Batten and my Lady, and after dinner had much discourse tending to profit with Sir W. Batten, how to get ourselves into the prize office or some other fair way of obliging the King to consider us in our extraordinary pains.
Then to the office, and there all the afternoon very busy, and so till past 12 at night, and so home to bed.
This day my wife went to the burial of a little boy of W. Joyce’s.

a dead rose is tending
some other air

the ordinary pains us
at the burial of a little boy


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 16 November 1664.

That I might not be too fine for the business I intend this day, I did leave off my fine new cloth suit lined with plush and put on my poor black suit, and after office done (where much business, but little done), I to the ‘Change, and thence Bagwell’s wife with much ado followed me through Moorfields to a blind alehouse, and there I did caress her and eat and drink, and many hard looks and sithes the poor wretch did give me, and I think verily was troubled at what I did, but at last after many protestings by degrees I did arrive at what I would, with great pleasure, and then in the evening, it raining, walked into town to where she knew where she was, and then I took coach and to White Hall to a Committee of Tangier, where, and every where else, I thank God, I find myself growing in repute; and so home, and late, very late, at business, nobody minding it but myself, and so home to bed, weary and full of thoughts. Businesses grow high between the Dutch and us on every side.

I leave my change with a blind man
testing the rain

everywhere a wing
and nobody minding it but me
weary and high


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 15 November 1664.

Up, and with Sir W. Batten to White Hall, to the Lords of the Admiralty, and there did our business betimes. Thence to Sir Philip Warwicke about Navy business: and my Lord Ashly; and afterwards to my Lord Chancellor, who is very well pleased with me, and my carrying of his business. And so to the ‘Change, where mighty busy; and so home to dinner, where Mr. Creed and Moore: and after dinner I to my Lord Treasurer’s, to Sir Philip Warwicke there, and then to White Hall, to the Duke of Albemarle, about Tangier; and then homeward to the Coffee-house to hear newes. And it seems the Dutch, as I afterwards found by Mr. Coventry’s letters, have stopped a ship of masts of Sir W. Warren’s, coming for us in a Swede’s ship, which they will not release upon Sir G. Downing’s claiming her: which appears as the first act of hostility; and is looked upon as so by Mr. Coventry.
The Elias, coming from New England (Captain Hill, commander), is sunk; only the captain and a few men saved. She foundered in the sea.
So home, where infinite busy till 12 at night, and so home to supper and to bed.

who is carrying us to war

to ward off news
I have stopped up ears
as the first act of hostility

the land is sunk
only the captain found a finite bed


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 14 November 1664.

(Lord’s day). This morning to church, where mighty sport, to hear our clerke sing out of tune, though his master sits by him that begins and keeps the tune aloud for the parish.
Dined at home very well, and spent all the afternoon with my wife within doors, and getting a speech out of Hamlett, “To bee or not to bee,” without book.
In the evening to sing psalms, and in come Mr. Hill to see me, and then he and I and the boy finely to sing, and so anon broke up after much pleasure, he gone I to supper, and so prayers and to bed.

where to keep the tune indoors
getting a bee to sing psalms


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 13 November 1664.