Pepys

During college, one of my music instructors was an amiable French horn professor saddled with teaching brass pedagogy to a classroom filled with 18- and 19-year-olds. 

We must have wearied him beyond measure. During a discussion about precursor brass instruments, we were smugly certain of our superiority to musicians of yesteryear, backed with muddled understandings about how, and at what speed, human development occurs. The good professor strove mightily to enlarge our silly little minds.

Modern music instruments might be technologically superior, he told us. But musicians in the past were as skilled, intelligent and gifted as those today.

Decades later, rereading Samuel Pepys’ famous diaries, I’m reminded of the good professor’s words. People in the 17th century largely perceived the world in the same ways we do. 

Pepys (pronounced “peeps,”) started his diaries during a time of political upheaval. England’s king, Charles I, was executed in 1649, a beheading Pepys witnessed. In 1660, this committed monarchist set sail on a naval expedition to help return from exile the late king’s son, Charles II. He started his diary four months before.

“Blessed be God, at the end of the last year I was in very good health, without any sense of my old pain but upon taking of cold,” wrote Pepys in his initial entry, on Jan. 1, 1660. (The “old pain” was gallstones.) 

“I live in Axe yard, having my wife and servant Jane, and no more in family than us three. My wife, after the absence of her terms for seven weeks, gave me hopes of her being with child, but on the last day of the year she hath them again. 

“The condition of the State was thus, viz. the Rump, after being disturbed by my Lord Lambert, was lately returned to sit again. The officers of the army all forced to yield. Lawson lie still in the River and Monke is with his army in Scotland.”

Pepys would not put down his pen until May 1669. He covered both the great events of the day and mundane personal ones, including fights with his wife, who did not appreciate his carefree, philandering ways. 

On Oct. 13, 1660, Pepys notes he went “to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition.”

He arrives home afterward, and becomes angry with his wife for her untidiness. “For her things lying about, and in my passion kicked the little fine basket, which I bought her in Holland, and broke it, which troubled me after I had done it.”

He does not shy from sharing the smallest details. 

“It having been a very cold night last night I had got some cold, and so in pain by wind, and a sure precursor of pain is sudden letting off (gas), and when that stops, then my passages stop and my pain begins.”

A young journalist could do worse than to study Pepys. He is a gifted writer with an innate sense for what photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment.”

More than 13,000 houses burned during the Great Fire of London. Pepys describes residents trying to save their belongings by flinging them into the river. But one of his most poignantly written lines is something a lesser scribe would fail to include. 

“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.”

Along with the Great Fire and restoration of the monarchy, he covered the Great Plague and the Dutch invasion. He critiqued Shakespeare’s plays, liking “Macbeth,” but savaging others.

“Saw Midsummer Night’s Dream which I have never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life. There was, I confess, some good dancing and some handsome women, but that was all of my pleasure.”

If you are interested in diving into Pepys’ diaries, one way is through the online site www.pepysdiary.com

Pepys’ diary entries are published daily in real time. The site’s followers have reached the year 1664. The diaries are also published on the site in their entirety, if you want to start at the beginning.

Quintin Ellison is editor of The Sylva Herald.