Acrostic Poetry: The First-Ever Anthology (published by Dover Publications last month) primarily features poems that portray subjects in a positive—often effusive—manner. That’s the primary association for this poetic form, dating back to 1599, when Sir John Davies penned 26 acrostics spelling out Queen Elizabeth I’s name. Acrostic Poetry includes only four acrostics that treat their subjects negatively, and they’re remarkable because they’re so against the grain. Highlights include a scathing selection by First Lady Louisa Catherine Adams and a poetic attack on Benedict Arnold by his uncle!
Adams wrote at least four acrostics while her husband, John Quincy Adams, was president. In “Recipe for the Spleen, From an Old Woman,” she lambasted a political rival, Sen. John Randolph. She later explained that Randolph’s “temperament was irritable and sensitive almost to madness; and he was incessantly goaded on in his political career by a wild ambition, ill regulated passions, petty jealousies and indomitable perseverance.”
Judgement I will not recommend Of sense perhaps a grain, or two. Have flights of fancy, villipend Nor mind of all you say is true. Read all the jest books thro’ with care, Abusive sarcasm prepare; Nor wormwood scruple now to steep. Dark hellebore and snake root deep, Of malice take a heavy drachm Let Envy there in mortar jam, Pints of the gall you may infuse Half of the dose take if you choose— ——— While venom from the tongue you spit Tipsy, you’ll think you’ve spoken Wit—
Oliver Arnold castigated his nephew, Benedict Arnold, a traitor to the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. A patriot and a frequent poet, the elder Arnold loathed his nephew’s treachery.
Born for a curse to virtue and mankind Earth’s broadest realm ne’er knew so black a mind, Night’s sable veil your crime can never hide Each one so great t’would glut historic tide, Defunct your cursed memory will live In all the glare that infamy can give Curses of all ages will attend your name Traitors alone will glory in your shame. Almighty vengeance sternly waits to roll Rivers of sulphur on your treacherous soul Nature looks shuddering back with conscious dread On such a tarnished blot as she has made, Let hell receive you, riveted in chains Doomed to the hottest focus of its flames.
Charles Vaughan Grinfield published 100 acrostics in A Century of Acrostics on the Most Eminent Names in Literature, Science, and Art, Down to the Present Time (1855). Grinfield was visually impaired, if not totally blind, and he dictated the poems to a woman named Gertrude, presumably his wife. He said that he composed the acrostics “to relieve some of the many unoccupied hours” he faced while suffering from “that greatest of afflictions, the deprivation of sight.” Among his five selections in Acrostic Poetry is “Napoleon,” which criticizes the emperor with a thirst for conquest.
Nations have rued the day when thou wast born, Ambition was thy God—mad lust of power: Pride, heartless selfishness, and cynic scorn, O’er thee held sway, and were thy hateful dower. Like the dread lion springing on his prey, Empires to thee were things to o’erwhelm at will. Oh, were it not for Waterloo’s great day, Not e’en, perchance, had ceas’d that thirst of conquest still.
Robert Blackwell’s Original Acrostics, on All the States and Presidents of the United States, and Various Other Subjects, Religious, Political and Personal (1868) comprehensively addresses all the presidents and states. In “Martin Van Buren,” Blackwell pans the eighth president because of his role in a financial crisis.
More fool than wise, more knave than saint, And yet he had so many charms, Reclining on his chair of ease, The people took him to their arms; In all his glory they saw him rise, Not clothed with virtue, but with disguise. Vows he broke from day to day, And though he made a great display, No good of him can mortal say. But still from us he homage claims, Unmindful of his traitorous aims; Robed in the garments of a foe, Enticing men with him to go— Not to heaven, but down below.
If you’ve had your fill of negativity, check out Acrostic Poetry: The First-Ever Anthology and enjoy the dozens of positive acrostics!