Acrostic Poetry

[Jason Chang, 1999]

Acrostic poetry is a form of short verse constructed so that the initial letters of each line taken consecutively form words. The term is derived from the Greek words akros, "at the end," and stichos, "line." The word acrostic was first applied to the prophecies of the Erythraean Sibyl, which were written on leaves and arranged so that the initial letters of the leaves always formed a word. Acrostics were common among the Greeks of the Alexandrine period and with the Latin playwrights Ennuis and Plautus. Medieval monks and poets also made this form of poetry popular during the Middle High German and Italian Renaissance periods.

An example of an acrostic written by the popular Edgar Allan Poe was found in his cousin Elizabeth Herring's album. Based on the handwriting and signature, it was probably written between 1831 and 1834.


ELIZBETH -- it surely is most fit
[Logic and common usage so commanding]
In thy own book that first thy name be writ,
Zeno 1 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."

The acrostic spells "Elizabeth Rebecca," Poe's cousin; her full name was Elizabeth Rebecca Herring. Miss Herring says that Poe wrote her love poetry in the early days.

Another poem illustrating the acrostic form is by David Mason.

Acrostic from Aegina

Anemones you brought back from the path
Nod in a glass beside our rumpled bed.
Now you are far away. In the aftermath
Even these flowers arouse my sleepy head.

Love, when I think of the ready look in your eyes,
Erotas that would make these stone walls blush
Nerves me to write away the morning's hush.
Nadir of longing, and the red anemones
Over the lucent rim-my poor designs,
X-rated praise I've hidden between these lines.

Like Poe's poem, Mason's acrostic is centered on a woman. Her name is spelled out in the acrostic "Anne Lennox." An additional characteristic to note in Mason's poem is how each line refers to "Anne Lennox" in some way.

Another example illustrating how the acrostic form helps to unify a message is found in the following sexually explicit poem by Jennifer Tonge.

Acrostic at Sarah's Request

Exalt me into flesh, each nerve feathering
at your right touch. Odd cannibal, incarnate me in you.
Touch what's made expressly to be touched, tap as on a sugar

maple, when I say tongue, I mean that quick conjunction of flesh and flame-in
excelsis-Deo, Deo.

The poem possesses strong sexual overtones because they are unified by the acrostic "eat me." In addition to the internal lines, the acrostic gives meaning to the otherwise ambiguous title.


"Acrostic": Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
[Accessed 18 October 1999].

"Elizabeth." E.A. Poe Society.
[Accessed 18 October 1999]

Mason, David. "Acrostic from Aegina." Hudson Review 51.1 (1998): 163.

Tonge, Jennifer. "Acrostic at Sarah's Request." Ploughshares 25.1 (1999): 117.

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