‘An Acrostic’ by Edgar Allan Poe is a poem resembling the format of an acrostic. An acrostic is a type of poem or any literary work in which a name is placed like a puzzle. The poet hides the name for any further reference or just for the sake of using the format. However, this technique was famous in medieval writings and used in different religious scriptures. Acrostic poems are very interesting to read as there is an explicit connection between the structure and meaning of the poem. There is nothing implicit like a conventional poem. In this acrostic poem of Allan Poe, the reference can be seen by placing the first letter of each line one after another. After the arrangement, it shows, “ELIZABETH”.
Summary of An Acrostic
‘An Acrostic’ by Edgar Allan Poe is a poem discussing the validity of Elizabeth’s statement about love. The poet makes several mythical and contemporary references in the poem. The main subject matter of the poem, as the message of the poem says, is “Elizabeth”. The poet wrote this in response to the poem, ‘Warning’ by L.E.L. Letitia Elizabeth Landon, popularly known by her initials L.E.L., was a British author and poet. She was a contemporary of Edgar Allan Poe. In her poem ‘Warning’, she wrote,
I have said, heart, be content!
For Love’s power o’er thee is spent.
That I love not now, oh true!–
I have bade such dreams adieu:
In response to the phrase “I love not”, Poe tried to present a different viewpoint regarding love in his poem, ‘An Acrostic’.
Structure of An Acrostic
‘An Acrostic’ by Edgar Allan Poe contains nine lines as there are a total of nine letters in the word “Elizabeth”. Each line has a varying syllable count. This poem reflects the features of romantic poetry in America. Structurally it is an acrostic poem. The poem hides a name in the body of the text. However, it is easy to see the message as it is present in the first letter of each line. The hidden name is “Elizabeth”. To be specific, it is an ‘alphabetical acrostic’ or abecedarius. The poet presents the order of the letters clearly at the beginning of each line. Hence, it is a perfect example of an alphabetical acrostic poem.
The rhyme scheme of the poem is a regular one. The poet makes use of closed couplet format from the first line to the sixth line poem. The last three lines rhyme together. The rhyme scheme of the poem is “AA BB CC DDD”. As an example, “say” rhymes with “way” in the first two lines. In the last three lines, “tried”, “beside”, and “died” rhyne altogether. The majority of the poem is written by using the iambic meter. However, there are certain trochaic variations in the poem.
Literary Devices in An Acrostic
‘An Acrostic’ by Edgar Allan Poe contains several important literary devices. The major literary device used in the poem is an allusion. The main allusion of the poem is made to L.E.L. or Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s poem ‘Warning’. However, he also alludes to Socrates’ wife Zantippe, the mythical figure Endymion, and Luna in the poem. Apart from that, the poet uses irony in the line, “–thou sayest it in so sweet a way”. In the usage of the word “language”, the poet makes use of synecdoche. There is a metaphor for thinking in the sentence, “Breath it less gently forth…”. There is another metaphor in the same line. Here the poet tells Elizabeth to close her eyes.
There is a paradox in the last two lines of the poem. The last line presents a climax as the concepts of “folie”, “pride”, and “passion” are arranged in ascension. Poe uses it for the sake of emphasizing the concept present in the line.
Analysis of An Acrostic
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:
‘An Acrostic’ by Edgar Allan Poe presents a reference to the poem of Elizabeth and the line she used in her verse, in the first four lines of the poem. According to the poet, she vainly said, “I love not”. In her poem, readers can find that she had turned her face from love. Nothing in that world could touch her emotions again, as she had bid adieu to those emotional and foolish things. Poe thinks her words had no validity in the real world. For this reason, he mocks Elizabeth’s statement about love in this line, ” “Love not” – thou sayest it in so sweet a way”.
By referring to Zantippe, Poe refers to the philosophy of Socrates. In a circumlocutory way, the poet satirizes the poet, Elizabeth’s philosophy regarding love.
Ah! if that language from thy heart arise,
Breath it less gently forth — and veil thine eyes.
Endymion, recollect, when Luna tried
To cure his love — was cured of all beside —
His follie — pride — and passion — for he died.
In the last five lines of the poem, Poe again implements his poetic words to ironically comment on Elizabeth’s thought process. He uses a satirical tone and tells her not to think in that manner. Love is not a kind of a feeling that negatively impacts a person. It is a source of living. Without love, one cannot survive.
In the mythological story of Endymion, he also tried “to cure his love”. At last, he drastically failed in his pursuit. For his foolishness and excessive pride in himself, he died. Poe alludes to this tale of Endymion and Luna to throw light on the poet’s misleading thoughts. In Poe’s overall tone, he is never reluctant to criticize Elizabeth Landon’s statement on love. Being a firm believer of love’s power, he knew at some point in her life she would admit what the poet tried to teach him through his work.
Historical Context of An Acrostic
‘An Acrostic’ by Edgar Allan Poe is a reactionary poem against the poet, Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s philosophy of love. In her poem, ‘Warning’ she presented her dispassionate thoughts on love. It agitated Poe’s mind. As a result, he penned down this poem. The form of the poet is also ironic in this case. It is like an “open secret” and used for emphasizing the poet’s name in his poem. The poet uses the name of Elizabeth as a metonym of her poem.
As it is said earlier, the form that Poe used is called an acrostic. It was common in medieval literature. It helped the poets of that period to highlight the name of the poet or his patron. Sometimes it was used to make a prayer to a saint. The acrostic form was sustained until the Renaissance. Edgar Allan Poe revived this form in his poem. However, why he used this form is still a matter of doubt. It seems to be a reference to Elizabeth Landon’s medievalist thoughts on love. In the Romantic age, such a philosophy of her had no such veracity at all.
Like ‘An Acrostic’ by Edgar Allan Poe, there are many poems in English literature that attacked the philosophy of self-restraint and passivity in the matter of love. For mostly the poets of the Renaissance, Reformation, and Restoration period, such a medievalist attitude was of little value. It weakened the soul for the absence of love. However, the rise of Protestantism changed the mindset of people regarding love. Here is a list of poems that is consonant with Poe’s poem.
- ‘To His Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvell – In this poem, Andrew Marvell using the theme of “carpe diem” requests his beloved to be spontaneous in the matter of love. He implores her to shed off the veil of passivity as the hours of youth is transient.
- ‘Never Give All The Heart’ by William Butler Yeats – The reaction of William Butler Yeats in his poem is similar to that of Landon’s poem.
- Love’s Growth by John Donne – The concept of love present in the poem of John Donne tells explicitly what Edgar Allan Poe tried to say in his poem.
- Love (III) by George Herbert – In this poem, George Herbert, one of the metaphysical poets, presents the definitions of different kinds of love. After reading it, Landon’s concept will seem obsolete concerning the spirit of the age.