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.

(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.

Up, being frighted that Mr. Coventry was come to towne and now at the office, so I run down without eating or drinking or washing to the office and it proved my Lord Berkeley.
There all the morning, at noon to the ‘Change, and so home to dinner, Mr. Wayth with me, and then to the office, where mighty busy till very late, but I bless God I go through with it very well and hope I shall.

in a town
run-down with drink
ashing the ice


Erasure haiku derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 12 November 1664.

Up, and with Sir J. Minnes and Sir W. Batten to the Council Chamber at White Hall, to the Committee of the Lords for the Navy, where we were made to wait an houre or two before called in. In that time looking upon some books of heraldry of Sir Edward Walker’s making, which are very fine, there I observed the Duke of Monmouth’s armes are neatly done, and his title, “The most noble and high-born Prince, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, &c.;” nor could Sir J. Minnes, nor any body there, tell whence he should take the name of Scott? And then I found my Lord Sandwich, his title under his armes is, “The most noble and mighty Lord, Edward, Earl of Sandwich, &c.”Sir Edward Walker afterwards coming in, in discourse did say that there was none of the families of princes in Christendom that do derive themselves so high as Julius Caesar, nor so far by 1000 years, that can directly prove their rise; only some in Germany do derive themselves from the patrician familys of Rome, but that uncertainly; and, among other things, did much inveigh against the writing of romances, that 500 years hence being wrote of matters in general, true as the romance of Cleopatra, the world will not know which is the true and which the false. Here was a gentleman attending here that told us he saw the other day (and did bring the draught of it to Sir Francis Prigeon) of a monster born of an hostler’s wife at Salisbury, two women children perfectly made, joyned at the lower part of their bellies, and every part perfect as two bodies, and only one payre of legs coming forth on one side from the middle where they were joined. It was alive 24 hours, and cried and did as all hopefull children do; but, being showed too much to people, was killed. By and by we were called in, where a great many lords: Annesly in the chair. But, Lord! to see what work they will make us, and what trouble we shall have to inform men in a business they are to begin to know, when the greatest of our hurry is, is a thing to be lamented; and I fear the consequence will be bad to us. Thence I by coach to the ‘Change, and thence home to dinner, my head akeing mightily with much business. Our little girl better than she was yesterday. After dinner out again by coach to my Lord Chancellor’s, but could not speak with him, then up and down to seek Sir Ph. Warwicke, Sir G. Carteret, and my Lord Berkely, but failed in all, and so home and there late at business. Among other things Mr. Turner making his complaint to me how my clerks do all the worke and get all the profit, and he hath no comfort, nor cannot subsist, I did make him apprehend how he is beholding to me more than to any body for my suffering him to act as Pourveyour of petty provisions, and told him so largely my little value of any body’s favour, that I believe he will make no complaints again a good while. So home to supper and to bed, after prayers, and having my boy and Mercer give me some, each of them some, musique.

in the book of the body
is there no other writing true as romance

which is true and which false
of two children perfectly made
joined at their bellies
and only one pair of legs

what work will make us fear
the consequence of it

how is holding you
so large a music


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 11 November 1664.