Tuesday, July 26, 2005



Languagehat prints a very interesting acrostic poem, full of classical references, by Rolfe Humphries, translator of Ovid and Vergil. The poem, published in the June 1939 issue of Poetry magazine, insults one of Humphries' former teachers.

Acrostics were not uncommon in classical literature. For example, many of the plays of Plautus have acrostic plot summaries, where the acrostics spell out the titles of the plays. Cicero, On Divination 2.54.111-112 (tr. William Armistead Falconer), discusses acrostics in the Sibylline books:
Moreover, that this poem is not the work of frenzy is quite evident from the quality of its composition (for it exhibits artistic care rather than emotional excitement), and is especially evident from the fact that it is written in what are termed 'acrostics,' wherein the initial letters of each verse taken in order convey a meaning; as, for example, in some of Ennius's verses, the initial letters form the words Quintus Ennius Fecit, that is, 'Quintus Ennius wrote it.' That is surely the work of concentrated thought and not of a frenzied brain. And in the Sibylline books, throughout the entire work, each prophecy is embellished with an acrostic, so that the initial letters of each of the lines give the subject of that particular prophecy. Such a work comes from a writer who is not frenzied, who is painstaking, not crazy.
See Michael Hendry's article A Martial Acronym in Ennius? for more information on ancient acrostics.

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