Understanding the Definition of an Acrostic Poem

This Is an Ancient and Playful Poetic Form

Sunrise, Roman Forum, Rome, Italy
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An acrostic poem is a cryptographic form in which the first letter of each line spells out a word, often the subject of the poem or the name of the person to whom the poem is dedicated.

The first known acrostics date back to ancient times: The name “acrostic” was first used to describe the prophecies of the Erithraean Sibyl, which were written on leaves arranged so that the first letter on each leaf formed a word.

And one of the most famous ancient acrostics is the Roman word-square found at Cirencester in southern England:

S    A   T   O    R

A    R    E    P    O

T    E    N   E   T

O  P   E   R   A

R   O   T   A   S

(This is not only an acrostic but a palindrome as well — notice it can be read forward and backward, up and down, using the same five Latin words.

Geoffrey Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio also wrote acrostic poems in the Middle Ages, and the argument over the authorship of Shakespeare’s works has been fueled by some scholars’ deciphering of acrostic codes hidden in the sonnets, codes that they claim are hidden messages inserted by who they think is the real author, Christopher Marlowe. During the Renaissance, Sir John Davies published an entire book of acrostics, "Hymns of Astraea," each of which spelled out the name of his queen, “Elisabetha Regina.”

In more recent times, puzzles and secret word-codes have fallen out of favor as poetic modes, and acrostic poems no longer get respect as serious poetry.

Most acrostics in the past 200 years have been written as poems for children or cryptographic valentines addressed to a secret lover. But rather than using acrostics to write hymns of praise to their leaders or loved ones, some contemporary poets have embedded acrostic insults in their poems so they are not visible to their objects or government censors.

Poe's "Elizabeth" Acrostic

Edgar Allan Poe's poem "Acrostic" was not published in his lifetime but is thought to be written circa 1829. The publisher James H. Whitty discovered it and printed it in his 1911 edition of Poe's poetry with the title "From an Album," says the  Edgar Allan Poe Society on its website, eapoe.org.  The "Elizabeth" of the poem is thought to be  Letitia Elizabeth Landon, an English poet who was a contemporary of Poe's, says the Poe Society.

 

Elizabeth it is in vain you say

Love not” — thou sayest it in so sweet a way:

In vain those words from thee or L. E. L.

Zantippe’s talents had enforced so well:

Ah! if that language from thy heart arise,

Breathe it less gently forth — and veil thine eyes.

Endymion, recollect when Luna tried

To cure his love — was cured of all beside —

His folly — pride — and passion — for he died.

 

More Examples of Acrostic Poems

  • "Hymn I, of Astraea" by Sir John Davies (1599)
  • "Hymn III, To the Spring" by Sir John Davies (1599)
  • "Hymn VII, To the Rose" by Sir John Davies (1599)
  • "London" by William Blake (1794)
  • "A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky" by Lewis Carroll (1871)
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Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "Understanding the Definition of an Acrostic Poem." ThoughtCo, Aug. 31, 2017, thoughtco.com/acrostic-poem-2725572. Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. (2017, August 31). Understanding the Definition of an Acrostic Poem. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/acrostic-poem-2725572 Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "Understanding the Definition of an Acrostic Poem." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/acrostic-poem-2725572 (accessed December 13, 2017).