1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Acrostic

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ACROSTIC (Gr. ἄκρος, at the end, and στίχος, line or verse), a short verse composition, so constructed that the initial letters of the lines, taken consecutively, form words. The fancy for writing acrostics is of great antiquity, having been common among the Greeks of the Alexandrine period, as well as with the Latin writers since Ennius and Plautus, many of the arguments of whose plays were written with acrostics on their respective titles. One of the most remarkable acrostics was contained in the verses cited by Lactantius and Eusebius in the 4th century, and attributed to the Erythraean sibyl, the initial letters of which form the words Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς Θεοῦ υἱὸς σωτήρ: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Saviour.” The initials of the shorter form of this again make up the word ἰχθύς (fish), to which a mystical meaning has been attached (Augustine, De Civitate Dei, 18, 23), thus constituting another kind of acrostic.

The monks of the middle ages, who wrote in Latin, were fond of acrostics, as well as the poets of the Middle High German period, notably Gottfried of Strassburg and Rudolph of Ems. The great poets of the Italian renaissance, among them Boccaccio, indulged in them, as did also the early Slavic writers. Sir John Davies (1569–1626) wrote twenty-six elegant Hymns to Astraea, each an acrostic on “Elisabetha Regina”; and Mistress Mary Fage, in Fame’s Roule, 1637, commemorated 420 celebrities of her time in acrostic verses. The same trick of composition is often to be met with in the writings of more recent versifiers. Sometimes the lines are so combined that the final letters as well as the initials are significant. Edgar Allan Poe worked two names—one of them that of Frances Sargent Osgood—into verses in such a way that the letters of the names corresponded to the first letter of the first line, the second letter of the second, the third letter of the third, and so on.

Acrostic verse has always been held in slight estimation from a literary standpoint. Dr Samuel Butler says, in his “Character of a Small Poet,” “He uses to lay the outsides of his verses even, like a bricklayer, by a line of rhyme and acrostic, and fill the middle with rubbish.” Addison (Spectator, No. 60) found it impossible to decide whether the inventor of the anagram or the acrostic were the greater blockhead; and, in describing the latter, says, “I have seen some of them where the verses have not only been edged by a name at each extremity, but have had the same name running down like a seam through the middle of the poem.” And Dryden, in Mac Flecknoe, scornfully assigned Shadwell the rule of

Some peaceful province in acrostic land.

The name acrostic is also applied to alphabetical or “abecedarian” verses. Of these we have instances in the Hebrew psalms (e.g. Ps. xxv. and xxxiv.), where successive verses begin with the letters of the alphabet in their order. The structure of Ps. cxix. is still more elaborate, each of the verses of each of the twenty-two parts commencing with the letter which stands at the head of the part in our English translation.

At one period much religious verse was written in a form imitative of this alphabetical method, possibly as an aid to the memory. The term acrostic is also applied to the formation of words from the initial letters of other words. Ἰχθύς, referred to above, is an illustration of this. So also is the word “Cabal,” which, though it was in use before, with a similar meaning, has, from the time of Charles II., been associated with a particular ministry, from the accident of its being composed of Clifford, Ashley, Buckingham, Arlington and Lauderdale. Akin to this are the names by which the Jews designated their Rabbis; thus Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (better known as Maimonides) was styled “Rambam,” from the initials R.M.B.M.; Rabbi David Kimchi (R.D.K.), “Radak,” &c.

Double acrostics are such as are so constructed, that not only initial letters of the lines, but also the middle or last letters, form words. For example:—1. By Apollo was my first made. 2. A shoemaker’s tool. 3. An Italian patriot. 4. A tropical fruit. The initials and finals, read downwards, give the name of a writer and his nom de plume. Answer: Lamb, Elia.

1. L yr E
2. A w L
3. M azzin I
4. B anan A