Acrostic

History

This is a fun poetic form and, precisely for that, it is in many cases how we are introduced to poetry in grade school. There is something in a child’s mind about secret messages…

Acrostics have a long and distinguished history. You can find it back in the prophecies of the Erithraean Sibyl (that, by the way, were where ‘acrostics’ got their name), which were written on leaves arranged so that the first letter on each leaf formed a word, and in several places in the Hebrew Bible. Acrostics were very common in medieval literature (mainly in German and English) both in verse and prose. Many times it was used to highlight the name of the poet or his patron. Geoffrey Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio also wrote acrostic poems in the Middle Ages,

But although today acrostic poems can be found in somewhat unexpected places (there is a hidden acrostic in the Dutch national anthem ‘Het Wilhelmus’ (The William): the first letters of its fifteen stanzas spell WILLEM VAN NASSOV),  puzzles and secret word-codes have fallen out of favor as poetic modes and are no longer respected as serious poetry. They are more frequently found as poems for children or cryptographic praise or love notes to loved ones. On the other hand, we do find poets writing acrostics to lodge insults in their poems, avoiding the hand of the censor until the goal is achieved. A famous case of this use of acrostics in a poem is that of Rolfe Humphries, secretly trying to call Nicholas Murray Butler a horse ass in a respected literary publication (Nah, he was discovered). On a more positive note, Trump’s Committee on Arts and Humanities, hid the massage “RESIST” in an acrostic in their letter of resignation in protest over his response to the incidents in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Ok, I kind of consider that ‘poetic justice’.

An acrostic poem is known as a cryptographic form: more frequently than not, the verses are aligned so that the first letter of each line spells out a word when read vertically, often the subject of the poem or the person to whom it is dedicated. For this reason, the acrostic poem is considered a ‘type’ poem form. The difficulty or ease of detectability of the coded message will depend on the poet’s intention who can make the message obvious by highlighting the key letters. Or he can hide it in different ways (using some other letter other than the first, using a variation of the letter position in different lines, etc.) so that only someone that knows the code can decipher it. Or he can code it as to make it permanently secret.

Structure:

As stated above, in the most basic form of the acrostic poem the first letter of each line spells a message when read vertically. You write your ‘message’ vertically and then compose the verses horizontally to write what could be a related or not related poem. A very popular use for this is the ‘one-characteristic-per-line’ style as in: A is for Agreeable, a breeze to get along with in retirement parties. But you could also write in a kind of ‘free form’ style where you may write an acrostic poem declaring your love or hate for the person spelled by the first letter of each verse (think Humphries). The poet may want to highlight the first letter with flourishes to make the ‘secret’ word obvious.

You could take it a step further in a ‘double acrostic’ format where both the first and last letter spell your message, both vertically (you would need less lines to put your message across).

Depending on the purpose of the poet, he could use instead the second or third and so on letter to make his message hidden except for a specific recipient or recipients that know what to look for. Or use the first letter of the first line, the second letter of the second line, the third of the third line and so on. Some writers can get really involved creating all kinds of convoluted schemes for their acrostic poems, as is the case for the poem Behold, O God!, by William Browne.

 

Types of Acrostic Poems (taken from literarydevices.net/acrostics):

  • Telestich: These are the poems in which the last letters of each line spell a word or message.
  • Mesostich: The poems in which the middle of words or verses forms a word or a message.
  • Double Acrostic: The poem in which words are spelled by both the first and last letters of each line in a way that one word is read vertically down the left side of the text, and another word is read vertically down the right side of the text.
  • Abecedarian: Acrostic in which alphabets are spelled instead of words. Chaucer’s poem “La Priere de Nostre Dame” is a good example of an abecedarian acrostic.
  • Non- Standard: Non-standard acrostics do not use first or last letters to spell out a word. Instead, they emphasize letters in different places within the poem.

 

Example:

This is a famous acrostic poem by Lewis Carrol dedicated to the Liddell sisters. It is a simple acrostic (only the first letter of each line is used).

Little maidens, when you look
On this little story-book,
Reading with attentive eye
Its enticing history,
Never think that hours of play
Are your only HOLIDAY,
And that in a HOUSE of joy
Lessons serve but to annoy:
If in any HOUSE you find
Children of a gentle mind,
Each the others pleasing ever—
Each the others vexing never—
Daily work and pastime daily
In their order taking gaily—
Then be very sure that they
Have a life of HOLIDAY.

References:

https://writingexplained.org/grammar-dictionary/acrostic-poem

https://www.acrosticpoem.org/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acrostic

https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/topics/z4mmn39/articles/ztdvw6f

https://www.thoughtco.com/acrostic-poem-2725572

https://literarydevices.net/acrostic/