Acrostic poetry is a form of writing that uses the first letter of each line to spell out a word, phrase, or name. It has been used for centuries as a way to encode secret messages, to commemorate loved ones, or to express feelings through words.
What is Acrostic Poetry?
Acrostic poetry is a type of writing that uses the first letter of each line to spell out a word, phrase, or name. The acrostic can be formed vertically or horizontally, and the words or phrases spelled out can be single words, phrases, or even full sentences.
Acrostic poems have been used for centuries as a way to encode secret messages or to honor loved ones. In the Middle Ages, for example, acrostics were used to encode religious messages in works of literature. In modern times, acrostics are often used in children’s books and as a way to teach spelling and vocabulary.
Types of Acrostic Poems
There are several different types of acrostic poems, each with their own unique structure and purpose.
- Classic Acrostic Poem
The classic acrostic poem is the most common type of acrostic. In this type of poem, the first letter of each line spells out a word or phrase, often the subject of the poem.
For example, here is a classic acrostic poem by Edgar Allan Poe, titled “Elizabeth”:
Elizabeth, it surely is most fit
[E]mblem of holy truth and worthiness
[L]ife's pathway through thy name is well begirt
[I]n whose sweet keeping are the keys of bliss
[Z]ion's own messenger, a faithful one
[A]ngelic and unspotted dove, whose wings
[B]ear thee between the mercy seat and us
[E]nshrined in beauty, love, and holiness
[T]hy saintly name around our hearts we twine
[H]eralding peace and joy, where'er its graces shine.
In this poem, the first letter of each line spells out the name “Elizabeth,” and the poem is a tribute to a woman of that name.
- Double Acrostic Poem
A double acrostic poem is a bit more complex than a classic acrostic. In a double acrostic, the first and last letters of each line spell out a word or phrase, often related to the subject of the poem.
For example, here is a double acrostic poem by Lewis Carroll, titled “Double Acrostic”:
Daisies are white,
Asters are blue,
Which is the prettiest flower?
Not I, not you.
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
But they're all prettier
Than a word like you.
In this poem, the first and last letters of each line spell out the word “Daisy,” and the poem is a playful exploration of which flower is the prettiest.
- Name Acrostic Poem
A name acrostic is a poem in which the first letter of each line spells out a person’s name. These poems are often used as a way to honor or celebrate someone.
For example, here is a name acrostic poem by Emily Dickinson, titled “Susan Gilbert”:
She slept beneath a tree
Remembered but by me.
I touched her cradle mute,
She recognized the foot,
Put on her carmine suit
In this poem, each line spells out the name “Susan Gilbert,” and the poem is a tribute to a friend of Dickinson’s.
- Sentence Acrostic Poem
In a sentence acrostic poem, the first letter of each line spells out a full sentence. These poems are often used to convey a message or idea through a hidden sentence.
For example, here is a sentence acrostic poem by Shel Silverstein, titled “Listen to the Mustn’ts”:
Listen to the MUSTN'TS, child,
Listen to the DON'TS
Listen to the SHOULDN'TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON'TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me--
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.
In this poem, the first letter of each line spells out the sentence “LISTEN TO THE MUSTN’TS.” The poem encourages children to ignore negative voices and to believe in themselves and their dreams.
Acrostic Meaning and Functions
Acrostic poems can serve many different purposes, depending on the context and the author’s intent. Here are some of the most common meanings and functions of acrostic poetry:
- Secret messages: Acrostics can be used to encode secret messages or to express hidden meanings. For example, during the Middle Ages, religious messages were often encoded in acrostic poems as a way to evade censorship.
- Tribute or dedication: Acrostic poems can be used to honor or celebrate someone, as in the case of name acrostics. These poems can be a way to express love, admiration, or gratitude.
- Education and instruction: Acrostic poems are often used in children’s books and educational materials as a way to teach spelling, vocabulary, and other concepts.
- Creative expression: Acrostic poems can be a way to express creativity and playfulness. Because the structure of the poem is predetermined, the poet can focus on choosing words and phrases that fit the acrostic rather than worrying about the overall structure of the poem.
Examples of Acrostic Poems in Literature
Acrostic poems have been used in literature for centuries, and many famous writers have experimented with this form of poetry. Here are some examples of acrostic poems in literature:
- “A Boat beneath a Sunny Sky” by Lewis CarrollA boat beneath a sunny sky, Lingering onward dreamily In an evening of July — Children three that nestle near, Eager eye and willing ear, Pleased a simple tale to hear — Long has paled that sunny sky: Echoes fade and memories die. Autumn frosts have slain July. Still she haunts me, phantomwise, Alice moving under skies Never seen by waking eyes.
In this poem, the first letter of each line spells out the name “Alice Pleasance Liddell,” the real-life inspiration for Carroll’s famous novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
- “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra PoundThe apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough.
In this poem, the first letter of each line spells out the word “TIPS,” which may be a reference to the “tips” of the petals on the black bough. The poem is a haiku and uses the acrostic structure to create a sense of unity between the two lines.
- “Silence” by Edgar Allan PoeThere are some qualities—some incorporate things, That have a double life, which thus is made A type of that twin entity which springs From matter and light, evinced in solid and shade. There is a two-fold Silence—sea and shore— Body and soul. One dwells in lonely places, Newly with grass o’ergrown; some solemn graces, Some human memories and tearful lore, Render him terrorless: his name’s “No More.” He is the corporate Silence: dread him not! No power hath he of evil in himself; But should some urgent fate (untimely lot!) Bring thee to meet his shadow (nameless elf, That haunteth the lone regions where hath trod No foot of man,) commend thyself to God!
In this poem, the first letter of each line spells out the name “Elizabeth.” The poem is a meditation on the concept of silence, and the use of acrostics highlights the idea of “double life” and “twin entity” that the poet is exploring.
- “An Acrostic” by Edgar Allan PoeElizabeth 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, 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 this poem, the first letter of each line spells out the name “ELIZABETH.” The poem is a playful love poem that uses acrostics as a way to incorporate the name of the object of the poet’s affection.
Acrostic poems are a unique form of poetry that can be both playful and serious. They offer poets a predetermined structure that allows them to focus on word choice and message rather than the overall structure of the poem. Acrostics have been used for centuries in literature, from medieval religious messages to modern children’s books. They can serve many different purposes, from encoding secret messages to expressing love and admiration. If you are interested in trying your hand at writing an acrostic poem, start with a simple name acrostic and see where your creativity takes you.
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