Pepys pilgrimage

Samuel Pepys bust at Seething Lane

On Wednesday, Rachel and I made our way over to the Museum of London to gawk at the silver plate recently identified as having belonged to Samuel Pepys.

The silver trencher plate is one of three in existence known to have belonged to Pepys — although it was only recently recognised as such — and is the only one on display in the UK.

It bears Pepys’ coat of arms and was made in a workshop in Foster Lane, near St Paul’s Cathedral and the museum where it now resides, in 1681/2. Cutlery scratch marks are visible in its surface, suggesting it was one of the pieces Pepys was referring to in his diary when he boasted that he served his guests on silver plates rather than pewter.

Well, if it was made in 1681 or 2, it couldn’t have featured in the diary, though there’s no doubt he was very proud of his silver. At any rate, it was such an impressive object I walked right past it and had to ask Rachel where the hell it was. My photo is, um, not good:

Pepys plate at Museum of London

I thought this ceramic plate on display nearby captured the spirit of the age much better:

plate in Museum of London

Coolest of all, perhaps, was this copy of astrologer William Lilly’s 1651 book Monarchy or No Monarchy, which was said to predict the Great Fire:

astrologist William Lilly's 1651 book predicting the Great Fire

Pepys’ diary accounts of the actual conflagration were extensively drawn upon for the museum’s looped six-minute film. I sometimes wonder whether his diary would be nearly as famous had he not had the (mis)fortune to live through the great plague in 1665 and the fire the next year.

We decided sort of on the spur of the moment to go back to Seething Lane and see whether the gardens on the site of Pepys’ office were accessible. On our previous attempt at a Pepys pilgrimage three years ago, the site had been all torn up and walled off for some sort of construction, and we feared the worse.

Our route took us past the Guildhall, and I couldn’t resist another selfie with the Pepys bust there. This is Sam at the peak of his power and influence — not the young man on the make of the diary period.

selfie with Pepys bust  at London Guildhall

As we rounded the corner from Hart Street to Seething Lane, Rachel noticed that St. Olave’s — Pepys’ church — was actually open. We hadn’t gotten into that last time either. So we were finally able to see the sculptor John Bushnell’s bust of Elizabeth Pepys that the grieving Sam had paid for after her early death in 1669, high on the wall to the left of the altar.

St. Olave's on Hart Street interior - Elizabeth Pepys memorial close-up

A more modern memorial to Sam himself, paid for by public subscription at the instigation of his Victorian-era editor Wheatley — the diary edition I’m erasing — isn’t nearly as impressive:

St. Olave's on Hart Street - Sam Pepys memorial

But the church has plenty of other fascinating details, such as this window from the Clothworkers’ guild, which evidently had teasel as its emblem:

St. Olave's on Hart Street window

And it was great to see that it was still very much a functioning Anglican church, not merely a tourist attraction. See my album on Flickr for more photos.

The churchyard was also charming, and included an herb garden in tribute to another famous parishioner, William Turner (1510-1568), the father of English botany. There was also a labyrinth, and Rachel didn’t object to my filming her feet as she walked it. Naturally, I had to turn it into another videohaiku:

The site of the Naval Board offices was right across the narrow Seething Lane, and Pepys had arranged for a covered walkway connecting them so the great men could walk to their gallery in church without getting rained on. Such is the enduring interest in Pepys that even the location of that former entrance is memorialized…

Pepys entrance to St. Olave's

…as is, of course, the site of the navy office, which survived the Great Fire only to be destroyed in another fire seven years later.

site of Naval Board offices

The reason the Seething Lane gardens had to be destroyed and replaced was to build an underground parking garage for the adjacent building, formerly the headquarters of the Port of London Authority, but now London’s second Four Seasons Hotel,

Seething Lane Gardens Pepys bust and Four Seasons back door

this one owned and operated by a Chinese corporation…

Seething Lane Gardens dedication

…which has done a decent job with it. To quote the wonderful London travel blog IanVisits:

The word ‘Seething’ may originate from a medieval word ‘sifethen’ meaning ‘full of chaff’, so-called after a nearby Corn Market.

Seething Lane Gardens have a curious history, but suffice to say it was once the topic of a planning dispute, and, with a slight gap, the fine of one red rose has been paid annually to the Lord Mayor. That’s since 1381, and the Knollys Rose ceremony still takes place each year.

In addition to the roses though, it’s famous for its association with the diarist Samuel Pepys, who lived in the same street and said he buried his exceptionally expensive Parmesan cheeses in his own back garden to protect them from the Great Fire of London.

Imagine our delight to look down and see Pepys’ buried cheese memorialized in a flagstone:

Seething Lane Gardens paving stone

This was just one in a whole series of flagstone engravings relating to Pepys, the Naval Board, the fire and the plague. Check out, for example, this excellent flea:

Seething Lane Gardens paving stone

And here’s a depiction of Pepys’ shorthand original of the diary:

Seething Lane Gardens paving stone

There’s no key to the paving stones anywhere, so if you’re not a Pepys fan, some are likely to be mystifying. This for example clearly depicts the removal of his bladder stone, which diary readers will know was a very big deal to him — he marked the anniversary of the operation every year with a party:

Seething Lane Gardens paving stone

I have photos of most of the engraved slabs on Flickr. As for the garden, Ian nails it:

Although I would have to say the current garden is rather pleasing, it’s of a style that’s increasingly generic – of raised beds with lots of paving, and hence not that interesting.

What does make this one stand out a bit is the paving […]

Sadly, the Knollys Rose has not been immortalized in stone, but some of the plants looked distinctly rose-like, so the ceremony should resume this year.

The garden was designed by the landscape architects, Capita Symonds.

The cost of the landscaping works came in at £1.25 million, paid for by the hotel development.

Pepys bust in Seething Lane Gardens

Walking to the Bank tube station at rush hour, we were impressed by the crowds of business-suited young and middle-aged City men, some scurrying, a few sauntering, many smoking (an unusual sight elsewhere these days). Palimpsest as London may be, some things don’t seem to change very much over the centuries.

The Pepys erasure project so far

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

In accordance with Marly Youmans’ suggestion in comments, I want to share a few observations about my on-going erasure poetry project with the Diary of Samuel Pepys. First, I should say that the encouragement of a number of writers, bloggers and readers whom I respect has been a great boon, and probably plays a larger role in my continued commitment to the project than I’m willing to admit. Thank you all.

I’m not ashamed to admit, however, that this began as a surprise gift for Rachel, whose long-standing enthusiasm for Pepys’ diary I did not initially share. Reading the Pepys entry of the day has since become part of our nightly ritual on Skype, and she enjoys seeing what erasure I’ve made of it when she wakes up in the morning. That’s a powerful incentive for me to keep going.

Tom Phillips, the author of the most famous erasure poem, A Humument, has said that he’s never actually read the text he uses (A Human Document by W.H. Mallock). That’s interesting, but it’s not my style. I view this erasure as an homage to Samuel Pepys as much as a new creation/discovery (or series of creations/discoveries). Although I make no particular effort to sound like Pepys or to avoid modern references, I want the “I” in the poems to reflect something of his interests and appetites — a son of Sam, as it were.

I’m also very interested in the two periods reflected in the online Diary of Samuel Pepys: the latter half of the 17th century, and the period from 2003-2012 when the online version made its first run. Because I started blogging in 2003 myself (as did Rachel and many other of the bloggers I still read), Pepys’ diary feels oddly like a piece of my own personal history. I was never an avid reader of it, but it was always there, and now I find that reading (or at least skimming) the copious and informative annotations left by readers ten years ago gives me a sense of inhabiting three historical periods at once. The diary is no longer just about them, those far-away Englishmen and women of the 17th century; it’s also about us, and about the many ways in which, over the past ten years, we’ve used the web to share and generate texts — and to present or invent our own daily lives.

With 51 Pepys erasures under my belt, my approach has changed in small but significant ways. The visual presentation itself has changed from “blackout” — using the highlighter tool in MS Word set to black to blot out all but the chosen words — to digital erasure. At first, I took a screenshot only at the end of the process. Now, the process involves copying and pasting the text from the online diary into a new file in my word processing program (Open Office Writer rather than Word these days); adding back any text censored from the 19th-century edition used for the online version, as supplied in the annotations by readers with newer editions; full-justifying the text; taking a screenshot with Screenpresso and saving it as a jpeg; drafting a poem below the text, in the same text file; and finally, opening the screenshot in Photoshop and using the eraser tool, set usually to a 15-pixel radius for a 700-pixel-wide image. Sometimes the text of the poem gets adjusted in the course of the erasure, but not too often.

My rule that I can only use words, or consecutive groupings of letters, in the order in which they appear in the original hasn’t changed, and won’t. (Contrast with A Humument, where Phillips typically constructs passages from words that are adjacent on the page, and links passages via umbilical-cord-like strings.) But I have loosened up: originally I only permitted myself to use words unchanged from the original, allowing for differences in spelling which I would correct in my text versions. But several weeks ago I began permitting myself to look for shorter words within longer words, which opened up more possibilities. For one thing, there are now a lot more potential indefinite articles!

Initially, my focus was completely textual, not aesthetic at all (and I think the blackout-style erasures were pretty ugly, too). But now I do pay attention to the look of the erasures, though I still try to keep the process simple enough that it doesn’t become enormously time-consuming. I try to preserve a scattering of un-erased marks to give the erasure a more physical, analogue feel, as well as to suggest the continued, shadow presence of a larger, parent text. If I have two or more options — duplicate words — in the parent text, I tend to pick those on the most natural visual route. And sometimes, as with yesterday’s haiku, I’ll allow myself to include an extra word (“west,” in that case) which the poem doesn’t necessarily need, but which gives the image a more balanced look.

Although I’ve entertained vague notions of building a collection whose component parts make some sort of consecutive sense, in practice each erasure stands on its own. I add the titles last of all, as with almost all poetry I write, but since they don’t emerge from the process of erasure, I think of them as quite superfluous — there because my blogging style at Via Negativa has been to provide original titles (as opposed to, say, “Pepys I.2.20,”  which is how I am saving them on my hard drive). Nevertheless, in some cases I think the titles have added something to the poems.

The text versions below the erasure images aren’t as much of an extra as my decision to place them in brackets might suggest. (And I’m considering doing away with the brackets.) In part, they’re there for accessibility reasons: if I didn’t put them out front, so to speak, I’d include them as HTML “alt” text instead, so as to make the erasures accessible to screen readers for the visually impaired. But for those who are not so visually impaired as to need a reader, and who simply rely on increasing the font size, the 700-pixel-wide image by itself, available on click-though, would not suffice. Hence in part the gloss. More than that, though, I am obviously enough of a traditionalist to want to make standard-looking, modern lyric poems out of the erasures, punctuated and arranged on the page for maximum impact. And I kind of like the idea of having two versions of each erasure, neither one of them authoritative.

The writing has certainly gotten easier than it was for the first three or four weeks, when I was often drafting two or three different poems before deciding on a keeper. Now there’s usually just a single draft. That’s largely because I no longer put the cart before the horse (as I now see it) by trying to erase from the outset. I start with a list of attractive nouns and phrases, then see where the best verbs are and start matching them up until an idea occurs to me. Occasionally, as in the one I called “Revolution Revelation,” Pepys’ language is so vivid and exciting, I can’t resist lifting great portions of it almost unchanged, and the erasure poem becomes more of a found poem.

As I suggest in the category description at the head of the archive, I started this project at a moment of personal crisis, if that’s not too strong a word. Re-reading too much of my own poetry has always left me slightly nauseated, but recently it had gotten even worse. I needed to expand my horizons, get a transfusion of new vocabulary, not worry so much about making complete or even comprehensible statements, and most of all, stop imposing so much of my own preconceptions on my poems.  I wanted to give accident a larger role in my writing, so that perhaps genuine discovery could take place more often.

Judged on that basis, I feel this erasure project has been a success so far. It may seem ironic, but working within these fairly severe, self-imposed restrictions has taught me a lot about creative freedom, which is always a dance between some kind of rules (be they only syntactical) and total license. Thinking of my materials as given in some sense has been immensely liberating, though it’s something I’ve long felt, a bit more abstractly, about writing in general. The arbitrary restrictions I’ve imposed on myself for this project probably don’t limit me much more than would the challenge of writing, for example, a sonnet sequence, though in the case of an erasure it’s the material rather the organization of the material that is limited. And I’ve enjoyed indulging certain delusions of an erasure poet.

My initial expectation that these erasure poems would all be of a piece — semi-surrealist, full of eating and drinking and bodily functions — has not been borne out. Instead, the results have resembled my usual flow in their variety: sometimes dominated by word-music, sometimes humorous, sometimes metaphysical, etc. Probably I need to stop fighting my natural tendency toward variety in style and tone. Also, as Luisa can probably attest, writing a poem every day is enough work without trying to strive for a high degree of continuity yet. Still, I’ll be curious to see if Son of Sam’s voice ever develops a degree of consistency, or if he continues to suffer from multiple personality syndrome.