“Annihilating all that’s made/To a green thought in a green shade.” -Andrew Marvell, 1681
Sometime in 1612, the genius dramatist, unofficial Poet Laurette, and all-around Falstaffian personality that was the writer Ben Jonson imagined a sort of epic voyage down London’s now-long-lost Fleet River. Jonson’s epic concerned neither the harrowing of hell, nor the loss of Paradise, or at least it didn’t do either in quite the manner that Dante had or that Milton would. Rather, Jonson envisioned the travails of his characters on this industrial Styx as less sacred and more profane, lacking transcendence but making up for it in the sheer fecundity of sewage that floated upon the canal that today flows underneath the bohemian environs of Camden Town, and whose tinkling can be heard through sewer grates in Clerkenwell.
In Jonson’s mock-epic “On the Famous Voyage,” the bucolic and pastoral have been replaced with offal and shit, where “Arses were heard to croak, instead of frogs,” and a thick crust called “Ycleped Mud” composed of excrement and refuse was known to bob like moss on the surface of the water. So disgusting are the noxious fumes from both commerce and latrine that Jonson’s fellow colleague, the poet Sir John Harrington, would write in his 1586 A New Discourse of a Stale Subject Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax that such smells “are two of those pains of Hell…and therefore I have endeavored in my poor buildings to avoid those two inconveniences as much as I may.” And so, at his manor of Kelston, he constructed the forerunner of the modern flushing toilet.
Conventions of pastoral poetry often had characters with names like Strephon and Chloe in repose upon halcyon shores; Jonson’s is rather a sort of anti-pastoral, one in keeping with the grime and dirt that increasingly defined his era. On the Fleet River, “The sinks ran grease, and hair of measled hogs, /The heads, houghs, entrails, and the hides of dogs.” Flowing from the center green of the city out to the Thames, the Fleet was polluted with the garbage of nascent industry, a slick, oily stream; a fetid and beshitted, offal-filled cesspool, made glistening with the rendering of animal fat and the corpses of dogs and cats. Notorious prisons like Ludgate and Newgate were on the banks of that now-subterranean river; plague-ridden slums filled with rural transplants clung to the brown shores of the Fleet.
In his delightful A Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England, social historian Ian Mortimer describes the privies that would have been in homes lining rivers like the Fleet: a “twelve-foot shaft of several hundred gallons of decomposing excrement and urine…seeping into the clay, for two or three years.” Mortimer reminds us, however, that though “Noisome smells and noxious fumes are common” in early modern England, this “does not mean that people do not notice them.” Indeed, both the population growth of London as well as the beginnings of mass industry, from leather tanning to wool dying, would have wafted new smells into the nostrils of the English. As Jonson wrote with infernal gleam, “Your Fleet Lane Furies…That, with still-scalding streams, make this place hell.”
Filth had been a topic of literary expression long before Jonson, one only read Geoffrey Chaucer, Francois Rabelais, or Giovani Boccaccio to know that poets have long sung not just of heaven, but of the asshole, the piss-bucket, and the privy as well. I’d venture that “On the Famous Voyage” does something a little bit different than the scatological depictions in The Canterbury Tales, however. Because Jonson’s London was so much bigger than Chaucer’s, because it was just beginning to be ensnared in the environmental degradations of industrialization, the scope of the olfactory and hygienic assault is greater than a Medieval writer could have imagined. “On the Famous Voyage” is satirical verse, yes; but it’s also an ecological poem.
Almost three centuries before the Romantic poet William Blake would castigate the “dark Satanic Mills” of Britain’s industrial revolution, Jonson gave expression to misgivings about how London was quickly erasing nature in the name of mercantile aspiration. Throughout the 16th-century, London expanded from the former sleepy agrarian capital of a sleepy agrarian kingdom into what would soon be the largest city on Earth. Around when Jonson was born, the city’s population was roughly 70,000 people; by the time he wrote “On the Famous Voyage,” it had grown to 200,000. Only a half-century later and London was home to half-a-million women and men. Emily Cockayne writes in Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England that “London was a wealthy bustling and expanding city, but infrastructural development could not keep pace and parts of the city became increasingly crowded, dirty and noisy.” Jonson didn’t just speak of dirt, he sang about waste; he didn’t just talk of filth, he was revulsed at garbage. “On the Famous Voyage” was among the first of what critics call ecopoems, and that’s because it’s an early missive from the beginning of our current geological epoch of the Anthropocene.
That term has become recently trendy in academic discussions of literature, a designation borrowed from geologists and climatologists to clarify the ways in which the Earth has been inextricably altered by humanity. With coinage frequently credited to the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen, the Anthropocene is supposed to define our current era, when people have (mostly for worse) altered the environment of the world in such a way that we’ve become the dominate actor and force in the acidity of the ocean, the thickness of the ozone layer, the very temperature of the planet. Legal scholar Jedediah Purdy explains in After Nature: A Politics of the Anthropocene that “we have made the world our anthill: the geological layers we are now laying down on the earth’s surface are marked by our chemicals and other industrial emissions, the pollens of our crops, and the absence of the many species we have driven to extinction.”
Scientists disagree on when it’s appropriate to mark the beginnings of the Anthropocene. As the period is most spectacularly defined by anthropogenic climate catastrophe, the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, with its harnessing of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, would seem an appropriate starting point. Others identify the Anthropocene’s creation moment as recently as the Trinity test of the first atomic bomb in 1945, to as long as 10 millennia ago when agriculture first emerged on the silty banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. At the risk of betraying my own early-modern-minded myopia, a credible case could be made for Jonson’s era as the dawn of the Anthropocene, which would have certain implications for how we read him and his compatriots in our own day, when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report concludes that we may have less than a decade to avert the worst results of global warming.
There are social, cultural, technological, and economic reasons for understanding the 16th and 17th centuries as the earliest decades of the Anthropocene. By Jonson’s birth there had already been a century of the Columbian Exchange, whereby the flora and fauna of the western and eastern hemispheres, which had been separated for millions of years, suddenly circumnavigated the world in a flurry of trade that radically altered the planet. Many of the economic and social trends that we associate with modernity—colonialism, globalization, and capitalism—see their start in Jonson’s century. The Renaissance also helps us to understand the interactions between climate and humanity, as the women and men of Jonson’s day were in the midst of what’s been called the “Little Ice Age.” During that period, temperatures plummeted, possibly due to the reforestation of North America brought about by plague and genocide that decimated native populations. Arguably, this process didn’t end until the cumulative effect of the Industrial Revolution’s mass emissions of carbon-dioxide began to warm the planet—obviously an ongoing process. During those years of snow and ice, Europe appeared radically different from the way it does today, as accounts of Tudor fairs upon the frozen Thames or the grey winter paintings of Peter Breughel attest. Philipp Blom in Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present writes that “Climate change…affected everyone. There was no escaping the weather.” What’s crucial to remember is that though the thermometer’s mercury was headed in a different direction than it is today, the weather of Jonson’s day was also shaped profoundly by the affairs of people.
An important result of humanity’s changed relationship to nature—the alteration that defines the Anthropocene—is the emergence of new urban spaces, new relationships between people and place that fundamentally changed the experience of what it means to be an inhabitant of Earth. Something new in “On the Famous Voyage:” Jonson has produced a literature that isn’t just about hygiene (or the lack thereof) but about mass pollution. For such lyrics to be written, the conditions of crowded, filthy, industrialized urbanity were required. “On the Famous Voyage” is about environmental collapse. Though rarely thought of as such, Jonson is an ecopoet at the precise moment in history when we redefined our relationship to nature—for the worse. Which is precisely what begs for a reevaluation of not just Jonson, but that entire tribe of under-read 17th-century poets whom he influenced and that called themselves the “Tribe of Ben,” posterity remembering them (when it does) as the Cavalier poets. Writers like Robert Herrick, John Suckling, Thomas Carew, Richard Lovelace, and most famous of them, though only occasionally categorized in their company, Andrew Marvell. Editor Miriam K. Starkman writes in her introduction to 17th-Century English Poetry that for the Cavalier poets, “External nature is…[the] most direct referent, source of beauty, joy, and mutability.”
For the Cavaliers, the pastoralism of classical poets like Hesiod and Virgil had much to recommend. One of their favored genres was the “country-house poem,” where their ecological concerns become apparent. In Jonson’s 1616 “To Penshurst,” he described the manor of Sir Richard Sidney with a language very different from that which he deployed four years earlier in his panegyric to the Fleet River. In “To Penshurst” Jonson extols this estate with its “better marks, of soil, of air, /Of wood, of water,” this “lower land, that to the river bends, /Thy sheep, they bullocks, kine, and calves do feed;/The middle grounds they mares and horses breed.” Jonson’s is a rhetoric of Eden, with prelapsarian tongue he describes:
…thy orchard fruit, they garden flowers, hurstFresh as the air, and new as are the hours. The early cherry, with the later plum, Fig, grape, and quince, each in his time doth come;The blushing apricot and wooly peachHang on thy walls, that every child may reach.
Such prelapsarian evocation of Eden is a common
trope in country-house poems, what Starkman described as “vague overtones of a faded
fragrance, a world just lost.” Unlike the Puritan, the Cavalier does not simply
mourn paradises lost, but rather preserves a bit of that charged immanence
within nature as it is now, acknowledging for the possibility of transcendence
just below surface appearances. What the country-house poem presents is paradise
in verse, a lyric crafted by the human mind as surely as a garden is planted by
human hands, with the verse itself becoming a type of perfection that you can
step into. Consider Jonson’s clear influence in Marvell’s almost-perfect 1681 “Upon
Ripe apples drop about my head;The luscious clusters of the vineUpon my mouth do crush their wine;The nectarine and curious peachInto my hands themselves do reach;Stumbling on melons as I pass, Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.
By imagining a world without the fall, poems such as these query us with the possibility of a future where the fall has been reversed, where the exploitation of nature is ceased. “On the Famous Voyage,” with its bawdy, earthy, fecal corporality may seem a long distance from Penshurst Palace. Yet pastoralism and its discontents are actually part of the same project; the disjunct between depicting nature in its abundance as well as the exploitation of the environment share a similar ideological underpinning. Starkman explains that for the Cavaliers, there is a “stoical awareness of the tragedy of Nature, the garden of innocence violated by experience.” Whether writing about bucolic orchards or shit-contaminated rivers, whether talking of nature or its violation, what these poems take as their subject is the environment. What their critics might say they lack in ingenuity, the Cavaliers more than make up in ecological prescience.
Drawing inspiration from Jonson’s verse, the Cavaliers have historically (and with much reductionism) been made to contrast with the other dominant tradition of 17th-century English poetry, the metaphysical school influenced by John Donne, and including George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and Thomas Traherne. Owing much to a distinction made by Dr. Johnson (of no relation to Ben) in his 1781 Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, the author described the Cavalier as being concerned with “sprightliness and dignity,” a verse which “endeavors to be gay,” where the poetry is “liberally supplied with… soft images; for beauty is more easily found.” By contrast, Dr. Johnson saw the metaphysicals as writing poetry where the “most heterogenous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and illusions.” Something, perhaps, to be observed in the fact that where the Cavaliers were content to observe nature, the metaphysicals mined the environment for metaphors, as if they were a precious non-renewable resource hidden below the broken crust of the world. Poetry such as Donne’s was defined by the so-called “metaphysical conceit,” the deployment of a metaphor that was surprising and novel—Dr. Johnson’s “heterogenous ideas… yoked by violence together.”
If the Cavaliers were plain-spoken, the metaphysicals were sophisticated; the former literal and physical, the latter metaphorical and spiritual; the first were backward-looking pastoral conservatives, the second forward-looking aesthetic radicals. Not to mention the coming political and sectarian splits of the English civil wars, with the Cavaliers (true to their courtly name) associated with High Church religion while fighting on behalf of the Royalist cause. John Stubbs writes in Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War that “the cavaliers were elegant gentlemen, chivalrous if sometimes dissipated,” though by contrast their political adversaries “the roundheads were religious and social revolutionaries.” Such a difference could presumably be seen in their writing. Cavalier verse lends itself to the almost pagan imagery of a poem like Herrick’s 1648 “The Argument to His Book,” which indeed could be read as an ars poetica for the entire tradition:
I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers:Of April, May, of June, and July-flower.I sing of Maypoles, hock-carts, wassails, wakesOf bride-grooms, brides, and of their bridal-cakes.I write of youth, of love and have accessBy these, to sing of cleanly-wantonness.
Nobody would mistake that sentiment for a Puritan ethos. Yet there is a simplicity to the traditional division; it implies that the Cavaliers lacked in Christianity (though Herrick was a priest), or that the metaphysicals lacked in sensuality—and anybody who has read Donne knows that that’s not the case. Literary historians often still teach the split between those two 17th-century literary traditions as an archetypal and Manichean struggle between abstraction and literalism, metaphysical sophistication and sentimental pastoralism. Despite the crudeness of such a formulation, there is a romanticism in understanding seventeenth-century poetry as divided between the head of the Puritan and the heart of the Cavalier. Scholar Earl Miner observes in an essay included in the Norton Critical Edition of Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets that the Cavalier ideal “reflects many things: a conservative outlook, a response to a social threat, classical recollections, love of a very English way of life, and a new blending of old ideas.”
Dr. Johnson, it should be said, cared not for the metaphysicals; his poetic conservatism and political royalism predisposed him to the Cavaliers, but this is a position that has not been commonly held for a very long time. For the literary modernists of the early 20th-century, the Cavaliers seemed naïve, sentimental, simple, pastoral; poet T.S. Eliot in his 1922 essay on the metaphysicals argued that “civilization comprehends great variety and complexity… The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.” For Eliot and others like him, the metaphysicals with their ingenious and sophisticated rhetoric, their complexity and abstraction, were a model to be emulated, and the Cavaliers, well, not so much.
The result is that the Cavaliers have seen a critical eclipse over the course of the last 10 decades. The metaphysicals dwelled amongst the stars, but the Cavaliers were content to muck in the dirt, and perhaps to dwell upon the beauty of the rosebuds while they were there. The ideology of the Cavalier was seen as hopelessly archaic when confronting the complexity of modernity. Not for nothing, the Cavaliers—and their royalist political program—are associated with Maypoles and Mummer parades, feast-days and carnival, and all the rest of the lackadaisical accoutrement conflated with a Merry Old England swept aside by Puritanism and modern capitalism. The Cavalier is thus a figure of naïve romanticism, Stubbs writing of how “Everyone can picture him…with his lovelocks, his broad hat, his mantle and bucket-topped boots, the basked handled rapier at his side, a buskin covering his satin doublet.” It’s true that the Cavaliers were often aristocratic (though not always), often royalist (though some like Marvell equivocated with chameleon-like urgency depending on politics), and that their verse could be plain-spoken and conservative (though deceptively so).
But we need not abandon them because of their embrace of a royalist politics; we need not obscure them because they spoke not to Eliot, or because modernists didn’t find their verse sufficiently complicated. To slur the Cavaliers as “conservative” is to perform a political category mistake; it’s to impose the conditions of the present day onto a period where exact corollaries are impossible to find. Michael Schmidt writes in Lives of the Poets that the Cavaliers mark the “beginnings of a literary tradition that takes pastoral convention into the actual countryside and finds in the harmony between nature and nurture a civilizing theme.” They have at the core of their ethics an understanding about an inseparable connection between nature and humanity that is almost “pagan in attitude.” For all of their reputation as being steadfastly traditionalist, and as much as their enthusiasms for the Caroline regime strike us as reactionary, the Cavaliers’ embrace of nature does have a radical message, standing as it does in opposition to the environmental exploitation that in our current day takes us to the precipice of complete collapse.
Stubbs described how the “cavalier and the puritan are potent archetypes. The puritan upholds the work ethic and the will to give up pleasure, scourging the soul for flaws. In the cavalier we have the individualist, more attuned to the passing moment and in greater touch with his desires.” How could we not recommend them, the Cavaliers, standing as they did in opposition to positivism, Puritanism, and privatization—forces that threaten to destroy our world—at the precise moment when those forces first emerged? Often dismissed for lacking seriousness, for their enthusiasm for sport and drink, for their indulgence, foppery, and libertinism, could we not identify such values as precisely those that should be valorized? Could we not see in their celebration of fairs, feasts, festivals, flora, and fauna a denunciation of work, industry, commerce, and all the rest of the alienated soullessness that now threatens us with ecological collapse?
Now is the precise moment to consider the earliest body of eco-poems ever penned—at the moment when the Anthropocene dawned. There is as much of Extinction Rebellion in Cavalier poetry as there is royalism. In embracing nature, they rejected the Puritanism that threatens our world, and in the process, what emerged was a powerful aesthetic of “Anarchopastoralism.” Schmidt writes that a “long time must pass before an anachronism is released back into time,” but if ever there was a moment to embrace the radical ecopoetics of the Cavaliers and their Anarchopastoralism, it’s in our current warm winter of the late Anthropocene. Too often dismissed by the ruthless individualists of modernism as embarrassing throwbacks engaged in Medieval affectations, the Cavaliers actually offered a complex meditation on the relationship of humanity to nature, and how the violation of the later compels the same for the former.
What the modernists saw as so rightly evocative in metaphysical poetry—the abstraction, the ingenuity, the philosophical sophistication—is arguably the foundation of the very alienation that has so easily separated us from nature; an inadvertent capitulation to the inhuman perspective that treats both people and the environment as mere commodities. This is not to blame the metaphysicals—that would be absurd, and I’m too much in love with the verse of Donne and Herbert to ever countenance such a thing. Besides, I may argue that the Cavaliers are more than just charming, but it’d be a hard claim to count Lovelace the poetic equal of Donne. What the metaphysical poets did accomplish, however, is a certain achievement of abstraction; a product of the age that allowed for mechanistic metaphors for human anatomy, where the French philosopher Rene Descartes could argue contra all experience that animals are simply little machines. Such a perspective is one that hasn’t unsurprisingly pushed us deeper into the Anthropocene.
To court reductionism once again, it’s the Puritanism that’s so dangerous in the metaphysicals, but we might yet be saved by the paganism in the Cavaliers; we may yet find our proper relationship to what Herrick called the “civil wilderness.” Stubbs writes that the “puritan is more dominant in recent times, present in the astonishing intellectual and physical achievements of the modern era—achieved at crushing human cost.” Might we not find room for the Cavalier then? For theirs is a theology that Starkman described as “under the influences of Neo-Platonism,” a “sensibility…well on its way to secular transcendentalism,” where nature “is divine.”
Perhaps the most crucial, if most subtle, difference between the metaphysicals and the Cavaliers is in their approach towards time, mutability, finality, and death. With a touch of critical eccentricity, I claim that for the metaphysicals their approach to the hereafter is one of memento mori, but for that of the Cavalier it’s carpe diem. The first refers to the approach that asks a penitent to forever remember while they are alive that one day, they shall be dead; the second is the exhortation that because you’ll shall be dead one day, you must “Seize the day” in the present. Memento mori is the aesthetic of spoiled fruit and time-glasses depicted in Dutch vanitas paintings; it’s the winged skull on a Puritan’s grave. Carpe diem, by contrast, is the drained wine-glass, the chicken bone cleared of meat. Not necessarily mutually exclusive positions, but as aesthetics they differ by giving the metaphysicals a gloss of piety, prayer, and death-obsession; the Cavaliers one of a lusty embrace of the moment. Carpe diem is the convention that allows Herrick to implore virgins to “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, /Old Time is still a-flying;/And this same flower that smiles today/To-morrow will be dying.”
While often simply read as an injunction to live life to the fullest, Stubbs correctly notes how this poem from Herrick’s 1648 Hesperides is “almost an austere lyric.” For lacking the apparent sobriety of memento mori, poems read as carpe diem are counter-intuitively more severe. Without claiming that any of the poets across both traditions were anything other than (mostly) orthodox Christians, the differences between a memento mori and a carpe diem perspective are crucial. While it would seem that the later would encourage us to live a life that could be wasteful, the opposite is actually true. Without the consolations of eternity, we are to make our lives as fit as possible while we’re actually living them, for when “now to the abyss I pass” (as Marvell wrote in 1651), any continued action becomes an impossibility.
What the ecopoetics of the Cavaliers offer us, in this era where (to repurpose a lyric of Carew), “the winters [are] gone, the earth hath lost/Her snow-whited robes, and now no more the frost/Candies the grasse, or casts an ycie creame/Vpon the silver Lake, or Chyrstall streame,” is a type of wisdom. Memento mori may ask us to reflect on the singularity of our own death, yet such a view presupposes a passing moment separating this life from the next, an entrance into eternity where all may be reconciled, all may be answered, all may be saved. But we can’t wait for such a moment of enlightenment, or for saviors other than ourselves to provide entrance into the next scene. Carpe diem, contrary to its reputation, does not necessarily hold such a naive faith. What “Gather ye rosebuds” reminds us of is not just our own mortality, but that of Arcadia as well. It’s an elegy for a dying world. The Cavalier intuits that the garden is not a symbol for anything higher; the garden is all that we have—and it’s good enough. Now our task is to preserve it.
At some point during the 31st of May 1669, a learned if bawdy, witty if obscene, educated if scandalous, pious if irreverent rake, raconteur, and libertine who’d recorded over one million words about his life for almost a decade stopped his private scribblings, even though this gentleman named Samuel Pepys would live for more than another three decades. To the best of our knowledge, until that point no Englishman had ever provided such a complete accounting; such a scrupulous interrogation not of the soul, but of a life—a largely secular exercise in tabulating not just wars, but dinners; not just plagues, but nights at the theater. Beginning on January 1st upon the first year of Restoration, Pepys would record everything from when fire immolated the city of London to a particularly enjoyable stew of tripe and mustard. An entry dated March 10th, 1666 confesses that the “truth is, I do indulge myself a little the more in pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it,” and such a position could be the motto of Pepys’s diary. That document doesn’t reach the rhetorical heights of other 17th-century classics—it has not the poetry of William Shakespeare’s famed soliloquy in Hamlet, nor the intellectual sophistication of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets or George Herbert’s The Temple. Rather, what Pepys offered was something different, but no less impressive—a complete map of an individual human life and mind during that defined period of time. As novelist Philip Hensher notes in The Atlantic, “there is no precedent and no parallel for what Pepys actually did.”
Restoration was inaugurated with King Charles II’s triumphant return to London to avenge his father’s regicide, and Pepys would work as administrator of the Navy in the new regime. This was a fabulous era of theatricality after a decade of dreary Puritan Interregnum; when John Dryden’s and Aphra Behn’s elaborate set-pieces thrilled London audiences, when Isaac Newton’s New Physics transformed the very nature of motion, when wits from John Wilmot to William Wycherley injected English letters with a pump of aphrodisiacs. An era ruled by an aristocracy that Peter Stallybras and Allon White describe in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression as being “carelessly demonic, nonchalantly outrageous, cynical in the way that only a class which despises its compromises can be cynical,” all of which Pepys was able to document. Pepys observed both the plague and the Great Fire of London, the first which decimated the capital and the later which purified it, and the Second Anglo-Dutch War when the English traded the tropical paradise of Suriname for a small village named New Amsterdam on the tip of Manhattan Island. With large, soulful brown eyes, jutting lower lip, and curly auburn hair, Pepys cut a swath through London society, from the coffee houses and printers of Fleet Street to the book stalls at St. Paul’s, pushing the Socratic injunction to “Know thyself” to its extreme, the most self-obsessed man in a self-obsessed era. A man aptly described by Emily Cockayne in Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England as the sort “not to make too much of a fuss about being accidentally spat on by a lady in the theatre—providing the lady was pretty.”
Yet after nine years of privately recording his movement in regal circles, his observation of scientific and technological changes, his attendance at the splendid plays of the Restoration, his intellectual intercourse with the era’s great minds (as well as the other type of intercourse), Pepys made his last entry on that spring evening in 1669. Fearing that he was going blind (he was not going blind), the diarist signed off with “The good God prepare me,” and so after one million words Pepys would fall silent in the record of his own life. A funny thing which literary anniversaries we choose to commemorate or not. Certain authors come in for posthumous honoring more than others—Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens. This year sees the 200th birthday of the great, grey bard of Camden, Walt Whitman, and his work will be rightly celebrated with events throughout his cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. Three years ago was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and it received a predictable amount of attention; 2023 will be the 400th year of publication for the first folio of the dramatist’s complete works, and it too will undoubtedly be commemorated with exhibitions, lectures, plays, books, and articles (I’m penciling such retrospectives into my own writing schedule right now). Pepys’s retirement as a diarist, by contrast, seems to largely be passing without much mention; the release of a commemorative coin from the Royal Mint (which he was associated with) notwithstanding.
An irony in this, because Pepys is in many ways a prophet of our own self-obsessed age. Pepys’s fragmentary, digressive, contradictory, messy diary (which was as voluminous in its output as it was disorganized in its execution) foreshadows our own individual self-fashioning. In Pepys we see Facebook; we see Twitter. British actor and web-programmer Phil Gyford sees in the diary a forerunner of blogging, and as part of an online project he spent nine years posting Pepys’s entries in real time. Lisa Schamess, in a delightful essay for Creative Nonfiction, considers both Gyford’s project and the general compatibility of Pepys’s diary with our own digital moment, arguing this his prose itself is “elegant evidence of how lustily the 17th century’s most famous diarist might have embraced the internet, tapping up its opulent charms deep into the night.” With an admirable eye towards close reading and comparison, Schamess reads through several of Pepys’s entries to demonstrate how in their half-formation, their digressions, and their exhibitionism, they’re reminiscent of Facebook posts. Schamess writes that Pepys’s “sharp eye and acid wit would be perfect for the restless internet, with its thin, glowing scrim between life and audience, its illusion of anonymity and controllable intimacy.”
Much is convincing in Schamess’s observation, yet it’s undeniable that even if his prose would be copacetic with the internet’s “illusion of anonymity and controllable intimacy,” Pepys’s actual writing was, at least while he was alive, completely private. Scholarly arguments abound about just how private Pepys’s expected his writings to ultimately be, and yet Gyford’s neat conceit aside, the historical diarist was not hitting “Post” after each one of his entries. Hewing to a more traditional interpretation of Pepys that sees him as a man of the late, late Renaissance, content to exist in wonder and curiosity, his editor Richard La Gallienne claimed that for Pepys’s “It is not so much himself that interests him, more merely the things that happen to himself, but the people about him and the things that are happening to everybody, all the time, to his nation as well as to his acquaintance.” Schamess’s and Gyford’s arguments about “social media Pepys” would be anachronistic coming from Pepys’s editor, a man old enough to have had an affair with Oscar Wilde, but perhaps La Gallienne would have concurred with them had he known what the internet was. Regardless, even in La Gallienne’s reading of the man’s character, there is something undeniable modern (or post-modern) in his vociferous appetites, his manner of absorbing, repackaging, and projecting his experience. In Pepys’s diary, there is an equivalence between his mind and the world, and what could be more contemporary than that, whether on paper or in 140-characters?
Written in a code-like short-hand developed in the 16th century, Pepys’s diary wouldn’t see publication until his writing was deciphered in the early 19th century; his previous reputation resting entirely on his role in civil government, ranging from membership in Parliament and being administrator of the Royal Navy to a position on the Tangier Council during the short years that the English governed a Moroccan colony. Pepys’s great colleague in self-introspection (or self-obsession), the Frenchman Michelle de Montaigne, may have invented the essay form more than a century earlier, but even he couldn’t match the Englishman for sheer magnificent, glorious, transcendent narcissism. The diary is what his name shall be inextricably linked with, not necessarily for the quality of the prose (though Pepys is often a fine stylist), but rather for the raw, honest, unguarded reflection on a sheer multitude of subjects ranging from politics to theater to medicine to sex. One of his 19th-century readers, the Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, writes that Pepys’s style “may be ungrammatical, it may be inelegant, it may be one tissue of mistakes, but it cannot be devoid of merit.” With what seems like faint praise, Stevenson clarifies that the worthiness of Pepys lay in a style that is “indefatigably lively, telling and picturesque…[dealing] with the whole matter of a life and yet is rarely wearisome.”
At turns anxious and perverse, aroused and guilty, introspective and arrogant, horny and holy, Pepys’s diary was the most complete record of the Restoration era, and of the vagaries of a human mind in all of its splendid contradiction. Tolerant and humane, if skeptical, in his Anglicanism, Pepys was an often unconvinced enthusiast of church sermons, writing on January 19 1661: “To church in the morning, where Mr. Mills preached upon Christ’s being offered up for our sins, and there proving the equity with what justice would lay our sins upon his Son.” Yet he was also the author who was able to write of his wife discovering Pepys’s dalliance with her maid Deb Willet as “coming up suddenly, did find me embracing the girl [with] my [hand under] her coats; and indeed I was with my [hand] in her cunny,” his indiscretions characteristically hidden in a hodgepodge of ellipses. Elsewhere he deploys a strange pidgin of English, Spanish, and French to mask his pornographic obsessions—idiosyncratic ciphers that if one can read his shorthand take most readers mere seconds to crack. That’s always been the enigma of Pepys, a man who spent so much time writing his apparently private diary, who took the most marginal of non-pains to cloak his indiscretions, and yet had the entire project bound in six volumes and categorized in his library’s bibliography with the apparent foreknowledge that it’d inevitably see posthumous publication.
Pepys is the virtual font of an age for those of us who are weirdly enmeshed in the 17th century, attracted to a melancholic era of stunning contradiction, which White and Stallybras describe as being both “classical and grotesque, both regal and foolish, high and low.” To read Pepys is to inhabit his world, and while among the great prose stylists of that century he lacks the metaphysical acumen of Donne, the philosophical flights of Thomas Browne, or the psychological insight of Robert Burton, Pepys makes up for those deficiencies by simply being there—day after day, for the better part of Restoration’s first decade. Consider the eeriness of his first-hand account of the plague which leveled London in 1665, forcing the court to rusticate themselves as the buboes spread through the capital:
This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord Have Mercy upon Us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind… that I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell and chew, which took away the apprehension.
Such a fusion of the horrific and the prosaic
conveys an immediacy that is still present three-and-a-half centuries later, a
sense of “This must have been what it was like.” Or consider his account of the
Great Fire of London from that satanic year of 1666, which remains haunting in
its specificity, the small details of tragedy illuminating the experience more
than maps and demographics ever could hope to:
Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.
Hensher observes that from a “seventeenth-century perspective, everything here is a deplorable breach of literary manners: the undignified interest in inessentials, the failure to assert any kind of moral about people’s scrabbling after their possessions, and the eccentric, unpolished syntax.” And yet Pepys’s is a novelistic sensibility, apt more for Dickens or Gustave Flaubert than for his own century; an empathy that understands that there is infinitely more to be conveyed in the image of singed pigeons than the sophistries of theodicy that impose false meaning on such tragedy.
In making record of the 17th century, there is certainly something innately attractive in gravitating towards those particular dates that loom large, but what’s most evocative in Pepys are the personal details, the mundanities but which by virtue of his having recorded them now belong to the annals of eternity. On April 4th, 1663 he makes record of dinner “most neatly dressed by our own only maid,” in which Pepys and his guest feasted upon a “fricassee of rabbits and chickens, a leg of mutton boiled, three carps in a dish, a great dish of a side of lamb, a dish of roasted pigeons, a dish of four lobsters, three tarts, a lamprey pie (a most rare pie), a dish of anchovies, good wine of several sorts, and all things mighty noble and to my great content.” There are, it should be said, numerous entries of this sort. Think of it as the Restoration equivalent of an Instagrammed food picture. He’s less charitable in his theater recommendations; writing on September 29tht, 1662 that he went to the “King’s Theatre, where we saw Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.” But what’s Shakespeare next to a lamprey pie?
Or Pepys harrowing reminiscence of a surgical procedure, more than two centuries before anesthesia, which removed a kidney stone the size of a tennis ball from his bladder. Medical historian Roy Porter writes in Blood and Guts: A Short History of Medicine that “invasive surgery was limited in scope; lengthy operations, or ones demanding great precision, were out of the question.” Nevertheless, “A brave man—Samuel Pepys was one—might risk having a bladder stone removed surgically.” We should be thankful that the physician was the rare 17th-century doctor who saw fit to wash his hands before venturing tasks urological, for had there been for a bit more grime upon his digits when he performed surgery on Pepys’s peep and we’d never have had the diary to read. Pepys had his anatomical memento mounted as a trophy, writing March 26th, 1660 that “This day it is two years since it pleased God that I was cut of the stone…and did resolve while I live to keep it a festival.” Supposedly Pepys would plunk the stone into glasses of wine.
Then of course there is all of the sex in Pepys, with squeamish Victorian editors deleting whole entries where the diarist both luxuriated and punished himself over perversions both imagined and enacted. Pepys enumerated the women, from aristocrats to maids, wives and daughters of friends and colleagues, whom he fucks; women united in the status of not being his wife. Obsessed with not only his own erotic adventures, Pepys spends ample time hypocritically chastising Charles II’s own notorious appetites, while fantasizing about the monarch’s mistresses, from the actress (and “Protestant Whore”) Nell Gwynne to the aristocratic Barbara Villiers, whom Pepys claims he had a sex dream of that was “the best that ever was dreamt.” Still substantially less problematic than the entry from May 21st, 1662 in which Pepys writes that he came across Villiers’s underwear being hung out to dry in the palace at Whitehall’s privy garden, being “the finest smocks and linned petticoats…laced with rich lace at the bottom, that ever I saw; and did me good to look upon them.”
Cockayne writes that Pepys was “often led by his libido,” and indeed there is something disquieting about the author spending all of this time lusting after scullery maids and servants, duchesses and actresses. Critic Warren Chernaik writes in Sexual Freedom in Restoration Literature that the infamously scurrilous theater of the period was “fundamentally conservative in its sexual attitudes.” Reading all of those lustily guilty passages of Pepys, and you can get a sense for the fundamentally reactionary nature of the diarist’s priapic concerns, where prurience and puritanism are twined pairs. Chernaik writes that “With nothing to rebel against, no taboos to be transgressed, blasphemy would lose its power to shock. It can be argued that society creates its rebels,” so that far from an exercise in liberation, Pepys’s orgasmic encounters were a type of prison, with nobody trapped in the neurotic cycle of release and guilt more than the author himself. Evelyn Lord in The Hell-Fire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies, writes about Pepys’s encountering, while perusing book-stalls with his wife, a lewd French volume entitled The School of Venus (infamous for its illustrations of society women purchasing prodigiously endowed dildos). Lord writes that after expressing disgust at the book, Pepys “put it back on the shelf. However, he was unable to resist it, and eventually went back and purchased it in plain binding, took it home, read it and then burned it.” One imagines that Pepys perhaps had more onanistic concerns with the book that even he wouldn’t put into record.
Denouncing The School of Venus to his wife, while later purchasing it in plain paper—was Pepys a hypocrite? Of course, he was a hypocrite. Did he feel guilt over his indiscretion? The ashes of his smut should leave little doubt that he did. Something modern in that position, the enigma of the neurotic. Pepys is our contemporary in that he dwells in a certain negative capability, a fractured ego strung as it is between the public and personal, the spectacle of accountability and the private web browser. In that manner, I see less of Twitter and Facebook in Pepys, less of the carefully manicured self-creation implied by our collective digital subterfuge, and more of a different post-modern literary genre—Samuel Pepys was the first writer of autofiction. That form, defined as it is by the presence of a narrator who is largely the same as the author but who dwells in the massive complexity of the individual, including all that is hidden (perhaps even from the author themselves). The true inheritors of Pepys’s ethos aren’t all of us clicking away on Twitter, it’s not the vulgarities of those writing status update while sitting on the toilet. Rather it’s those obsessive writers cataloging the minutia of their lives; poet Ben Lerner in 10:04, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Teju Cole’s Open City, and especially the Norwegian completist Karl Ove Knausgård’s six-volume My Struggle.
In that 3,600-page door-stopper, Knausgård contemplates both his conflicted relationship with his father, and the breakfasts he prepares for his children—with as much detail as Pepys once did. Knausgård writes of days that were “jam-packed with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when ever opportunity filled me to the brim.” The task of My Struggle was for Knausgård to write deliberately and simply, to dwell in the prosaicness of detail. By comparison, Hensher describes the minutia of Pepys’s diary as being such that most of its entries couldn’t be “considered important in any obvious way; each has the quality, instead, of being interesting, which is much stranger and harder to achieve. We know about the socially aspiring dish of tripe and the randy morning because the man wrote it down.” That is the cracked wisdom shared by both Knausgård and Pepys, the understanding that we don’t write about things because they’re important, but rather things become important because we write about them. Jonathon Sturgeon claims in Flavorwire that the best description of the autofictional novel is a book where “the oeuvre is the soul. The artist’s body of work…has come to replace the religious ideal of the immortal spirit.” If that’s true, I’d venture that Pepys’s profane, grubby, earthy, secular diary is the first autofictional novel, in all of its over-determined detail, with all of its insignificant meanings, and especially with all of its contradictions of spirit, so very human in their deployment.
Writing of Pepys shortly after the diary had been rediscovered and published in the 19th century, Stevenson provided gloss for Pepys’s protean character: “We all, whether we write or speak, must somewhat drape ourselves when we address our fellows; at a given moment we apprehend our character and acts by some particular side; we are merry with one, grave with another, as befits the nature of demands of the relation.” Such a mercurial nature is our common birthright, and in the sloppy, imperfect, anomalous medium of a diary we can see a certain process made naked. A polished essay is like the woman or man dressed formally for a job interview, clothing dry-cleaned and hair perfectly coifed—the individual self-fashioned into the most presentable of versions. Diaries are how we actually are more or less all of the time—messy, confused, and impolite. Le Gallienne argues that “The record was a secret between himself and his own soul, not forgetting his God… whom he invokes on many curious occasions.” Written for the Lord and for posterity, Pepys’s diary is a record of the soul before editing and revision, which is to say a record of the soul as it actually is. No deletions, no rearrangements, no strike-throughs, but rather a manuscript as a man, all error and contradiction—and the more perfect for it.