By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Acrostic poems are great fun to read. They may be even more fun to write. Many of the best and most famous acrostic poems in the English language were poems written for a particular recipient, whose name is ‘hidden’ within the poem. So, how is this achieved? What is an acrostic, and how can anyone write one?
First, a definition: an acrostic is a poem where the initial letters of each line spell out a word, name, or phrase. For instance, this piece of doggerel is an acrostic:
Preserve the high honour of poems dear,
Oh poor acrostic-writer: by design,
Each line of verse that you will lay down here
My name discover, line by singing line.
That’s not a great poem by any means, but you can see how it’s an example of an acrostic poem because the initial letters of each line spell out the word P-O-E-M.
In English literature, acrostic poems have rarely entered the canon of great poetry. The first person in England to write an acrostic is believed to be Walter Haddon (1516-72), but his acrostic was included in a Latin poem. Later, however, some notable names, including Edgar Allan Poe and Lewis Carroll, turned their hands to the acrostic, and examples of their work in the form can be found below.
But how can anyone write an acrostic? They are fun to write because they give you a structure: you know which letter each line needs to begin with. And then you can start completing the rest of the line, rather than staring at a blank page.
Sir John Davies, ‘Hymne VII: To the Rose’.
Eye of the Garden, Queene of flowres,
Love’s cup wherein he nectar powres,
Ingendered first of nectar;
Sweet nurse-child of the Spring’s young howres,
And Beautie’s faire character …
The poet Sir John Davies (1569-1626) is little-read now, but he is an interesting figure in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature. Indeed, Jonathan Bate even proposed, in his book Soul of the Age, that Davies was possibly the rival poet whom Shakespeare writes about in his Sonnets.
Davies was a virtuouso versifier and his Hymnes of Astraea (1599) comprises no fewer than twenty-six acrostics. The one we’ve chosen here spells out ‘Elisabetha Regina’ (i.e. Queen Elizabeth), in honour of Queen Elizabeth I herself.
William Blake, ‘London’.
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
This is a controversial inclusion on this list of the best acrostics. Blake’s 1794 poem about the degradation and suffering of people living in Britain’s capital city is not an acrostic throughout, but the third of the poem’s four stanzas does pleasingly spell out the word ‘HEAR’, as you can see above.
John Keats, ‘Acrostic: Georgiana Augusta Keats’.
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 …
Another great Romantic poet, John Keats (1795-1821) penned this glorious acrostic for his sister-in-law, Georgiana Keats (born Wylie), who was married to the poet’s brother George. We include the first stanza above, but you can read the full poem by following the link.
Note how the opening stanza spells out Georgiana’s first name, or, as Keats himself puts it, exacts in capitals her golden name.
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘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:
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.
Let’s have a trio of acrostics written by a nineteenth-century writer who loved puzzles and cryptograms: Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49). This poem is believed to date from around 1829, when Poe was just twenty, and is addressed to a woman named Elizabeth – perhaps his cousin (see below).
A poet writing an acrostic for someone with a Z in their name faces something of an uphill struggle, hence the reference to Zantippe (Zanthippe was the wife of Socrates, the Greek philosopher. Meanwhile, ‘L. E. L.’ is Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802-1838), a popular English poet.
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Elizabeth’.
ELIZBETH – it surely is most fit
[Logic and common usage so commanding]
In thy own book that first thy name be writ,
Zeno and other sages notwithstanding;
And I have other reasons for so doing
Besides my innate love of contradiction;
Each poet – if a poet – in persuing
The muses thro’ their bowers of Truth or Fiction,
Has studied very little of his part,
Read nothing, written less – in short ’s a fool
Endued with neither soul, nor sense, nor art,
Being ignorant of one important rule,
Employed in even the theses of the school –
Called – I forget the heathenish Greek name –
[Called anything, its meaning is the same]
‘Always write first things uppermost in the heart.’
Poe actually composed several acrostic poems in his youth. This one is also to an Elizabeth: here, we can more confidently identify the addressee and recipient as Elizabeth Rebecca Herring, who was Poe’s cousin (curiously enough, Poe would later marry another of his cousins, Virginia).
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘A Valentine’.
For her this rhyme is penned, whose luminous eyes,
Brightly expressive as the twins of Loeda,
Shall find her own sweet name, that, nestling lies
Upon the page, enwrapped from every reader.
Search narrowly the lines!—they hold a treasure
Divine—a talisman—an amulet
That must be worn at heart. Search well the measure—
The words—the syllables! Do not forget
The trivialest point, or you may lose your labor!
And yet there is in this no Gordian knot …
But wait, you cry. How can this poem be an acrostic when the initial letters don’t spell out anything that makes sense? Poe was more cunning with this one, and the name of the recipient, Frances Sargent Osgood, is more fiendishly concealed: we need to pay attention to the first letter of the first line, the second letter in the second line, and so on …
Lewis Carroll, ‘Acrostic’.
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.
After Poe, perhaps the most famous and prolific acrostic-writer in the nineteenth century was the master of nonsense literature, Lewis Carroll (1832-98). As the eagle-eyed reader can probably guess, the three children who were the joint-dedicatees of this acrostic are Lorina, Alice, and Edith.
Lewis Carroll, ‘A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky’.
A 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 …
Here’s another Carroll acrostic, this time written for Alice Pleasance Liddell, the inspiration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). You can read the full poem by following the link above.
Anna Rabinowitz, Darkling.
Is it possible to sustain the acrostic form over something longer – even an entire book? The American poet Anna Rabinowitz managed it. Darkling: A Poem (2001) is a book-length acrostic based on a collection of letters from family members lost in the Shoah or Final Solution.
The book is described by Marjorie Perloff as ‘a book-length sequence of elegiac fragments, obsessive ruminations on the lives of the poet’s Polish-Jewish parents, grandparents, as well as her own, filtered through the eyes of an extraordinarily clear-eyed contemporary witness.’
David Mason, ‘Acrostic from Aegina’.
Published in the Hudson Review in 1998, this contemporary acrostic poem spells out the name ‘Anne Lennox’: the woman who is the subject of the poem.
Of course, any poet who sets himself the task of writing an acrostic to someone whose name contains an X has his work cut out; but Mason manages it here in a way that doesn’t come across as forced or out of place.