An acrostic is a literary device where the first letter of each verse consecutively forms a word or message. It is commonly used in poetry but can also appear in prose or word puzzles. This word or message is typically related to the poem's theme and serves as a hidden layer of meaning. Additionally, acrostics can function as mnemonic devices, aiding in memorization. Acrostic poems can take various forms, including different meters, rhyme schemes, and free verse, but the most recognizable type involves the initial letter of each line forming a word, often capitalized.
Types of Acrostic Poems
In telestich poems, the last letters of each line spell out a word or message.
Mesostich poems feature words or messages formed by the middle letters of words or verses.
Double acrostics involve words created by both the first and last letters of each line. This results in two vertical words on either side of the text.
Abecedarian acrostics spell out alphabets instead of words. An example is Chaucer's poem "La Priere de Nostre Dame."
Non-standard acrostics deviate from using the first or last letters to spell out a word. Instead, they emphasize letters placed elsewhere within the poem.
Examples of Acrostic in Literature
Example #1: Lewis Carroll’s “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."
In this famous acrostic by Lewis Carroll, the initial letters of the poem spell out the names of three sisters: Lorina, Alice, and Edith. The poem celebrates the joys of domestic life during the holidays.
Example #2: Nabokov’s “The Vane Sisters”
"I could isolate, consciously, little. Everything seemed blurred, yellow-clouded, yielding nothing tangible. Her inept acrostics, maudlin evasions, theopathies—every recollection formed ripples of mysterious meaning. Everything seemed yellowly blurred, illusive, lost."
Vladimir Nabokov's prose story hides an acrostic in its final paragraph: “Icicles by Cynthia; Meter from me, Sybil.” These words hold the key to interpreting the story's mysterious plot.
Example #3: An Acrostic by Edgar Allan Poe
"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 arises,
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."
Edgar Allan Poe uses an acrostic to playfully explore the theme of love, spelling out "ELIZABETH" within the poem. The work touches on the joyful aspects of love and its role in our lives.
Example #4: Cage’s "Overpopulation and Art"
"This poem is a mesostic poem in which key letters are placed in the middle of each line. Cage, very skillfully, talks about the phenomenon of overpopulation in this long mesostic poem. He has used these formal strategies to show that in this overcrowding world the individual is no longer the center of social or aesthetic forms of organization in a digitalized world."
John Cage employs a mesostic format in this poem to discuss overpopulation's impact. Through this acrostic strategy, he highlights the changing dynamics in a crowded, digitalized world.
Acrostics: Meaning and Function
Acrostics serve as tools to add depth to texts, transforming them into word puzzles that engage the reader in deciphering hidden messages. Writers use this technique to convey thoughts, ideas, and messages in a playful or thought-provoking manner. Acrostics can make poems more memorable, a common practice in children's literature to facilitate enjoyable learning experiences.