Poetic Forms: Abecedarian and Acrostic
The abecedarian is an ancient poetic form guided by alphabetical order. Generally each line or stanza begins with the first letter of the alphabet and is followed by the successive letter, until the final letter is reached. The earliest examples are Semitic and often found in religious Hebrew poetry. The form was frequently used in ancient cultures for sacred compositions, such as prayers, hymns, and psalms. There are numerous examples of abecedarians in the Hebrew Bible; one of the most highly regarded is Psalm 118 (or 119 by King James numbering). It consists of twenty-two eight-line stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chaucer's "An ABC" is an excellent medieval example of the form. He crafted his translation of a French prayer into twenty-three eight-line stanzas that follow the alphabet (minus J, U, V, and W).
Abecedarian poems are now most commonly used as mnemonic devices and word games for children, such as those written by Dr. Seuss and Edward Gorey. However, there are fine contemporary examples by Carolyn Forché in Blue Hour, and Harryette Mullen in Sleeping with the Dictionary. In Forché’s forty-seven page poem, "On Earth," she adheres to a rigorous form in which alphabetical order guides not only the stanzas, but also the words themselves. For example, she writes:
"languid at the edge of the sea
lays itself open to immensity
leaf-cutter ants bearing yellow trumpet flowers along the road
left everything left all usual worlds behind
library, lilac, linens, litany."
A form derived from the abecedarian is the acrostic, which spells out names or words through the first letter of each line. The intent of the acrostic is to reveal while attempting to conceal within the poem. William Blake addresses the despairs of the plague in the poem "London," telling the reader how he listens to everyone’s pain while wandering along the Thames River. Blake uses an acrostic in the third stanza to emphasize the horrifying sounds:
"How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls."
Examples of the Abecedarian form:
A Primer of the Daily Round
by Howard Nemerov
by Inger Christensen
translated by Susanna Nied
by Edward Lear
An ABC (The Prayer of Our Lady)
by Geoffrey Chaucer
by Edward Lear
Examples of the Acrostic form: