An acrostic poem is a cryptographic form in which the initial letter of each line spells out a word, often the subject of the poem or the name of the person to whom the poem is dedicated.
The first known acrostics date back to ancient times: the name “acrostic” was first used to describe the prophecies of the Erithraean Sibyl, which were written on leaves arranged so that the first letter on each leaf formed a word. And one of the most famous ancient acrostics is the Roman word-square found at Cirencester in southern England:
S A T O R
A R E P O
T E N E T
O P E R A
R O T A S
(This is not only an acrostic, but a palindrome as well—notice it can be read forwards and backwards, up and down, using the same five Latin words.)
Geoffrey Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio also wrote acrostic poems in the Middle Ages, and the argument over the authorship of Shakespeare’s works has been fueled by some scholars’ deciphering of acrostic codes hidden in the sonnets, codes which they claim are hidden messages inserted by the real author, Christopher Marlowe. During the Renaissance, Sir John Davies published an entire book of acrostics, Hymns of Astraea, each of which spelled out the name of his queen, “Elisabetha Regina.”
In more recent times, puzzles and secret word-codes have fallen out of favor as poetic modes and acrostic poems have not been respected as “serious poetry.” Most acrostics in the past 200 years have been written as poems for children or cryptographic valentines addressed to a secret lover. But rather than using acrostics to write hymns of praise to their leaders or loved ones, some contemporary poets have embedded acrostic insults in their poems so they are not visible to their objects or government censors.
We have a number of acrostic poems from the Elizabethan, Romantic and Victorian periods in our library here at About Poetry: