Acrostic Definition

An acrostic is a literary device in which the first letter of every verse consecutively forms a word or message.  An acrostic is mostly applied in poetry, but can also be used in prose or word puzzle. This word or alphabet is often connected to the theme of the poem. It is deliberately inserted to make readers discover the layered message. It also acts as a mnemonic device that can quicken the pace of the memorization process. Acrostic poetry can be written in any meter, or free verse form, with or without a rhyme scheme. However, the most common types of acrostic poems are those in which the initial letter of each line forms a word, and is often capitalized.

Types of Acrostic Poems

  • Telestich: These are the poems in which the last letters of each line spell a word or message.
  • Mesostich: The poems in which the middle of words or verses forms a word or a message.
  • Double Acrostic: The poem in which words are spelled by both the first and last letters of each line in a way that one word is read vertically down the left side of the text, and another word is read vertically down the right side of the text.
  • Abecedarian: Acrostic in which alphabets are spelled instead of words. Chaucer’s poem “La Priere de Nostre Dame” is a good example of an abecedarian acrostic.
  • Non- Standard: Non-standard acrostics do not use first or last letters to spell out a word. Instead, they emphasize letters in different places within the poem.

 Examples of Acrostic in Literature

Example #1

Acrostic in 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.

This is a very famous acrostic by Lewis Carroll. Carroll wrote this poem for three children on Christmas. The poem illustrates the lovely sense of domestic life during the holidays. The poet seems to explain why we should take a break out of busy lives to enjoy these times of the holidays. However, it is the most common type of acrostic, as the initial letters of the poem spell out the names of three sisters: Lorina, Alice, and Edith.

Example #2

Acrostic in 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.”

This is the best example of acrostic formed in prose.  It is a story about a professor who believes that codes and concealed meanings wrapped in acrostics evoke the thrill of discovery. Therefore, the first letters of each word in the final paragraph of the text spells out a phrase, “Icicles by Cynthia; Meter from me, Sybil.” Although these words may sound like nonsense if someone has not come across the story, they are the keywords to interpret 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 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.

This famous acrostic has been written by a renowned American poet, Edgar Alan Poe in which he talks about love by using the name, ELIZABETH as a word. The L. E. L in the third line may refer to an English poet, Letitia Elizabeth London, who is famous for signing her works with these initials. The poem speaks about the love and merry-making of a couple. Poe has used acrostic style to illustrate how most of the people find hope in love.

Example #4

Acrostic in 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.

Acrostics Meaning and Function

It is used as a tool to add a new dimension to the texts. The writers, very artistically, transform a simple text into a word puzzle by allowing the audience to interpret the hidden message of the text. Also, it enables the writers to project information comically. However, it is not something comic. The writers purposefully choose this strategy to convey their thoughts, ideas, and messages. Also, the acrostic style makes poems easy to remember. This conventional style of poetry is widely exercised in children literature to make learning fun for them.