English Literary Terms

Acrostic- what is it

What is Acrostic

 

ACROSTIC: A poem in which the first or last letters of each line vertically form a word, phrase, or sentence. Apart from puzzles in newspapers and magazines, the most common modern versions involve the first letters of each line forming a single word when read downwards. An acrostic that involves the sequential letters of the alphabet is said to be an abecedarius or an abecedarian poem.

Acrostics may have first been used as a mnemonic device to aid with oral transmission. In the Old Testament, some of the Hebrew Psalms include acrostic devices. Chaucer also wrote acrostics such as his “ABC” (Prior a nostre dame) in his younger days. Acrostics are also common in Kabbalistic charms and word squares, including the Cirencester word square of Roman origin:

ROTAS
OPERA
TENET
AREPO
SATOR

Abecedarian acrostics were also a common genre in classical Hebrew poetry. For instance, Psalm 118 in the Douay-Rheims numbering of the Bible (or number 119 in the King James numbering of the Bible) is an abecedarian acrostic, with each stanza headed by one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, such as Aleph, Beth, Gimel, and so on. Similar acrostics appear in Lamentations 3. Renaissance examples of acrostic poetry include the preface to Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist.”

If a poem is built so that the last letters in each line form a word, rather than the first, the poem is called a telestich.

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