An acrostic is a piece of writing in which single letters form words or messages. The “acrostic” is most commonly associated with poetry but it might also turn up in prose. This type of poetic form is often found in relation to children’s poetry, but not exclusively. There are several examples, as listed below, that were written with a wider audience in mind.
The word used as the acrostic guide is almost always the main subject of the poem itself. For instance, if the lines of the verse spell out the word “EARTH” then the poem’s main themes will likely be centred around earth or nature.
Sometimes, the acrostic word is less obvious than other times. Even, in some cases, the word falls within the centre of lines rather than at the beginning or end. This makes the discovery of the keyword part of the process of reading the poem.
There is no single meter associated with acrostic poetry, nor is there is single rhyme scheme writers are meant to conform to. The main feature, the keyword, is the only element that sets this kind of poetic form apart from other free-verse poems. Writers who want to make sure the acrostic guide word is easily discoverable for readers might decide to capitalize the first letter of each line, drawing greater attention to it.
Types of Acrostics
All that being said, there are a few different kinds of acrostic poetry. The first is the telestich in which the last letter of each line spells out the word. The next mesostich, refers to an acrostic poem in which the message falls in the middle of the lines. In this version, the message is more difficult to find.
There is also the double acrostic. This is a kind of poem in which words are spelled by both the first and last letters of the lines. One word is on the left side of the text and one on the right. An abecedarian is an acrostic in which the poet uses the alphabet as a guide rather than a word or phrase. Chaucer wrote a very famous example of this kind of poem called ‘La Priere de Notre Dame’.
Finally, there is the non-standard acrostic poem. This is when there is no single line of letters that forms a word or phrase, rather the letters are disturbed randomly throughout the poem. They are usually emphasized in some way so that a reader will know to look for them.
Examples of Acrostic in Literature
Example #1 Acrostic by Lewis Carroll
One of the most famous examples of acrostic poetry is ‘Acrostic’ by Lewis Carroll. This poem, like many pieces of acrostic poetry, was written with a younger audience in mind. In fact, records note that this was written for three children on Christmas. The poem speaks on life during the Christmas season and spells out the names of the three children it was written for. Along the left side of the poem a reader can make out the names “Lorina,” “Alice,” and “Edith”.
Example #2 An Acrostic by Edgar Allan Poe
‘An Acrostic’ was written by Poe for one of his “female admirers” presumably named Elizabeth. It is this name that is spelled out by the nine letters that start the nine lines. The poem was not published until after Poe’s death. It was discovered and added into a 1911 edition of Poe’s works. Read more here.
Take a look at the poem below:
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.
As with much of Poe’s poetry this piece is filled with various allusions. The lines reference L.E.L, who scholars believe is Letitia Elizabeth Landon, a fellow poet. In the seventh line, he mentions “Endymion” a shepherd from Greek mythology. He also refers to Zantippe, or Xanthippe, the wife of Socrates.
Example #3 Acrostic: Georgina Augusta Keats by John Keats
In this poem, as the title suggests, Keats speaks on his sister, Georgina. It is her name that the poem spells out along its left-hand side. Take a look at the first stanza of text that very clearly says “Georgina”:
Give me your patience, sister, while I frame
Exact in capitals your golden name;
Or sue the fair Apollo and he will
Rouse from his heavy slumber and instill
Great love in me for thee and Poesy.
Imagine not that greatest mastery
And kingdom over all the Realms of verse,
Nears more to heaven in aught, than when we nurse
And surety give to love and Brotherhood.
This poem is quite clever as it is a description of the poet’s sister but it is also, in part, discusses the writing of the poem itself. He asks for her patience while he frames “in capitals [her] golden name”. Like the previous example from Poe, this work also makes several allusions within its lines. For instance, to the muses, Ulysses, and Othello.