Pepys Diary Erasure Project

Starting January 1, 2013, I’ve been finding daily erasure poems in the 17th-century Diary of Samuel Pepys, and posting the results to Via Negativa. I use HTML to gray out the words I don’t use without completely erasing them, but I also post versions of each poem as stand-along texts—true erasure poems. Which also sometimes find their way into videopoems, because why not?

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. Pepys was a sexual predator and an architect of British colonialism who personally profited off the slave trade, so any less than an engaged, critical reading of the diary, in this day and age, would be irresponsible. From a secret diary, these are the secret poems hidden even from the author himself.

I began compiling the erasures into free ebooks in 2017. Here are 1664, 1665, 1666, 1667, 1668 and 1669. From my second go-round starting in 2023, here’s 1660.

Visit Via Negativa to subscribe to the daily email digest (which also includes Virginia poet laureate Luisa A. Igloria’s brilliant daily poems) using the form in the sidebar, or simply browse the Pepys Diary Erasure Project archive.

Additional video/film versions of my erasures include my Carnival and Arsonist; Anatomy by Marie Craven; and 5 X Samuel Pepys by Marc Neys aka Swoon.