• Email
  • Print

The Humming Poet

The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Volume X, Companion

edited by Robert Latham, by William Matthews, compiled and edited by Robert Latham
University of California Press, 626 pp., $35.00 each volume

The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Volume XI, Index

edited by Robert Latham, by William Matthews, compiled and edited by Robert Latham
University of California Press, 344 pp., $35.00 each volume

The superb eleven-volume edition of The Diary of Samuel Pepys, transcribed and edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews, is now completed by two volumes: the promised Companion and an Index. The Companion fills exhaustively the London background to the diary; it describes the streets and official buildings of the little, half-timber city, has articles on how people dressed, what they ate and drank, the trades, the taverns, the coffeehouses, and the traffic of the carefully mapped streets, and explains the political and religious tensions of the period from Cromwell to the Restoration during the period of the diary and indeed until after Pepys’s death. The contributors are scholarly; the Index traces the brief history of almost all the figures of the diary and the huge tribe of Pepys’s rural forebears and kinsmen.

Richard Ollard’s long essay in the Companion on the state and strategy of the navy from Cromwell’s time through the Stuart Restoration is of great specialized interest even to those who, like myself, have forgotten what they were taught at school about the Channel wars with the Dutch. Why did the Dutch and the British—both of them second-rate powers, and both, allied as they had been in the long struggle against “the Catholic Colossus that bestrode Europe and the New World,” having emerged as the champions of Protestantism and representative government—fall upon each other? They were rivals in trade. And trade, so often presented to us as naturally peaceable, was armed to the teeth. Most trading ships in the world had guns. The standard British answer was put in the words of one of Pepys’s friends, Captain Cocke, the hemp merchant dealing in rope: “The trade of the world is too little for us two, therefore one must go down.”

Charles I, Cromwell, and Charles II in their turn held that the Dutch were “unreasonable”; their famous fault was “offering too little and asking too much.” The British scraped through but they had what seems now to be their “traditional darkest hour” when Dutch ships turned up in the Medway and Pepys himself had to rush to the country to bury his gold in his garden and pitched his silver into the privy.

The Pepys tribe had slowly risen from the condition of villeins and yeomen in Cambridgeshire since the middle ages to become craftsmen, lawyers, and in some instances, gentry. The father of Pepys was no more than a poor London tailor who had moved to London and somehow got around the ban of the Merchant Tailors’ Guild. He married a butcher’s daughter from Whitechapel; the son was brainy or there was influence enough for him to get into St. Paul’s distinctly upper-middle-class school and to go eventually to Cambridge University. The Puritan pushed, and his rise was owing to the patronage of his first cousin, Edward Montagu, a naval commander and diplomat who was powerful in English naval affairs under Cromwell. Pepys became his domestic secretary, and in the crisis of the Restoration, Montagu took him to Holland on the semisecret mission to fetch the new king Charles II to the throne. A heady moment: Pepys saw Montagu knighted on board; eventually Montagu became Earl of Sandwich.

Rapidly the industrious Pepys was to become the indispensable servant in naval affairs with direct access to the monarch, who, in spite of his frivolity, cared passionately for English sea power. From an early age Pepys was seen to be a man of system and detail, the born hard-working administrator, the backroom boy expert in equipping a fleet, a careerist who began work at 4 am in summertime, bent on rising to the top, not averse to “gifts” or to making a respectable fortune. He has been called “the Saviour of the Navy” in the long wars with the Dutch.

And there is the other Pepys, who came back home every night to write his secret diary by candlelight, and stopped only nine years later because he feared he was going blind. The Puritan had lapsed young, although he cheered when he went to see the execution of Charles I. He seems always to have been a curious witness of executions.

John Hayls’s engaging portrait of Pepys when he was thirty-three, on the cover of the Companion, brings the better known Pepys to mind: the grave yet sensual music lover, the man of pleasure—or goodfellow as he called himself. The full eyes bloom with steady curiosity; there is a straight line between the arching brows to suggest the thinking man. The lips are full and sensual. It is perfect that he holds in his hand the music of his own song “Beauty Retire.”

Once more we ask why this born careerist was also a man of parts, and should have become the most open and minute of secret diarists. There was of course a diarizing tradition among Puritans. Whom was he addressing when he went home at night to write down the comings and goings of the day so that not only himself but London comes to life? Confessing to God? Hardly, though he may just have been informing Him, for surely He was one who liked system and order. Out of vanity? Pepys was vain. But he was a man interested in himself, as Montaigne and the later Boswell were. At the office his records might seem formally official in their English: in the diary he is natural and unofficial. His English comes close to common speech. It is packed with forgotten everyday words and proverbs. It seems to me that, if anything, he is really addressing that new “science” which was the ideal of the newly founded Royal Society—curiosity.

The Society had its major scientists, given to experiment to the point of crankishness and folly. In his essay in the Companion, Professor A. Rupert Hall mentions experiments on blood transfusion between dogs and then experiments on men. (One man died.) There was a farcical attempt to weigh air; there was a useful lecture on the making of felt; but the most suggestive—if we think of Pepys—were talks on new optical instruments, above all the “burning glass” and microscope. Pepys owned one of these new toys. He was a man for the wonder and delight of the eye.

The beauty of the microscope is that it enlarges and reveals the mysterious intense life in small things. The one impression we have of the diary is that it is a written microscope revealing his own and London’s life; so that a casual reference to the way his French wife leaves her clothes lying about on the floor, or to seeing a mouse run across his desk and shutting it under one of the shelves “till tomorrow,” or how people dissemble at auctions, becomes an event.

Why the secrecy of the diary? In uncertain times there are political risks when “presents” and bribery were taken for granted, but could be dangerously exposed in party maneuvering and getting a man out of his job; secrecy was wise. Pepys was bold but knew the uses of discretion. He clearly loved being secret, that is, free to be secret with himself. It occurs to us that the record-keeper is also an artist. The famous shorthand and his particular fascination with its signs suit well with his gifts as a linguist in Greek, Latin, French, and Spanish. Secrecy, or worldly discretion, also allowed him to recall and relive his sexual adventures without fear. More than half of Pepys’s nature belonged to the old “Merrie England” known to his forebears. The sight of any beautiful woman heated him instantly.

It is an odd trait of the old Puritans that music was the one art they did not hate. The Companion is particularly interesting on this subject. Pepys was a good bass singer in the choir of the Chapel Royal. He was a player of the viols, the violin, the lute, the theorbo or great lute, and the flageolet. He learned the recorder and took lessons in the subtle art of whistling. He lacked training, but he was proud to be a “virtuoso,” as dedicated amateurs came to be called: he could not play a spinet but he could tune it. He struggled to compose. For music, as Dr. Richard Luckett says in his long and learned article in the Companion on the crisis in music of Pepys’s time, the diarist felt a passion as intense as his love of beautiful women. (Both passions were the occasion of his tribulations—and reconciliations—with his adored wife.)

In seventeenth-century England “it was still possible to receive a first-rate musical education as a matter of course…. This was made possible by the survival of late medieval and early renaissance educational theory, which had treated music as a necessary branch of philosophy and mathematics rather than as primarily an effective phenomenon.” In the eighteenth century the Augustans rejected the doctrine; for them music was “a luxury, a matter of sound rather than sense.” In Pepys’s time organs in cathedrals, churches, and chapels had been destroyed in the civil wars, but it is reported that in that fanatical period music-making prospered in the home; London barbers often kept a guitar or fiddle in their shops, and a waiting customer might cheer the rest with a tune. One Roger North wrote that “many chose rather to fidle at home, than to goe out, and be knockt on the head abroad.” It is known that Pepys took two song books with him on the expedition that brought Charles II back to Britain.

Dr. Luckett’s essay is at once erudite and illuminating, and leads ingeniously to his study of Pepys’s language. Pepys’s was a master of two kinds of English: the formal and the everyday. He was a subtle critic of sermons and utterances on the stage. He was famous for an elegant speech he made in defense of the Navy Office in 1668, and there is no doubt that his classical education and his mastery of French and Spanish made him a natural master of rhetoric and debate. But Dr. Luckett thinks that in the diary the simple or trailing sentences come close to easy table talk. The syntax is often erratic, he rambles on, even clumsily, as if talking to himself, without a strict grammarian at hand:

His language is above all a reflection of its objects, not, to Pepys, an object in itself. Its naturalness, its truth to common speech, strikes home because the fundamentals of that speech have changed comparatively little in three hundred years, though in recent years the influence of radio and television has accelerated the process.

Luckett thinks of Pepys as consummately the poet of the quotidian—one might say a kind of humming poet—as he catches the tune of life at home, on the streets, or at court. The simple monotone hums with preoccupations. The archaic sentences—and his eccentric spellings—may amuse us, but they are really the voice of real, lived-through days, indeed of time itself. Fact fetishist? Yes, but some facts are more equal than others. The Diary has the inconsequent surprises of the inner life, mixing the twinges of conscience, the resolutions to reform, the dissemblings, the brief appeals for forgiveness, with the zest of rebellion. In his romantic condition at the mere sight of the unattainable Lady Castlemaine he idealizes: “a whore she is,” of course, but he has a mind to pray no harm come to her. She is so handsome: “May God forgive me.” He cannot stop looking at her. She is his “princesse lointaine.” There is no rough talk of “rattling” this paragon.

Pepys was not another Vicar of Bray. He longed, as the nation did, as indeed civil servants always do, for stability. As a saturated Londoner he has much in common with Dr. Johnson, a sterner figure. He is closest in temper to Chaucer, his favorite poet. (He loathed Milton.) Some have thought his diarizing shows his fear of death. He had reason to fear it. Nothing is more in character than the defiant annual dinner he gave to celebrate his recovery from the dreadful operation for the stone—without anaesthetic—when he was a youth. The sinister object would be brought out as a treasure. There is nothing sadder than the early threat of blindness caused, he thought, by his toiling at his records by candlelight: it put an end to the diarizing, and by this time he had cut down the wine drinking of his “morning draught,” his guzzling of meats, pies, and turkeys, and his pursuit of housemaids.

He lost his great office when one more revolution, the Glorious one, brought over a more solemn monarch, William of Orange. Pepys easily dismissed the accusation that under James II he had become a secret Papist: he hated high-flying bishops as much as Puritan fanatics. He was glad, he said, to have time to himself, to contemplate his fortune, his fine library, and his prints, and to talk with his ingenious friends. It is a sign of his lack of social pretension that he did not set up as a country gentleman, as the others of his eminence usually did. He was a Londoner to the end.

  • Email
  • Print