ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

The Abecedarian Poem

Updated on February 2, 2013

Poetry by the Letters: The Alphabetical Acrostic

An abecedarian poem is a poem which uses the author’s alphabet as its main “vehicle”. It is a type of form, but not one which is defined by meter or rhyme scheme. Instead, the abecedarius “spells out” an alphabet in its accepted order.

It is this sequential progression which makes the abecedarian form a subtype of acrostic poetry – verse which uses initial letters to spell out an alphabet or a name. The earliest known acrostics appear in Babylonian literature dating from approximately 1000 years B.C. – the Babylonians actually spelled out entire sentences in their compositions.

The history of the abecedarian poem is vast, which makes perfect sense. After all, alphabets have existed as long as has written language, and poetry is an ancient art form in and of itself. The fact that the two would be combined seems nothing less than logical – but today’s perspective of “alphabet poetry” seems to skim over and even belie the rich spiritual and religious heritage of this poetic form. The beginnings of the abecedarius are ancient – people have been composing them for thousands of years.

The Hebrew Alphabet.

This photograph has been released into the public domain throughout the world insofar as is legally possible.  Where this is not possible, the author grants permission for use of this photo for any reason and without restriction.
This photograph has been released into the public domain throughout the world insofar as is legally possible. Where this is not possible, the author grants permission for use of this photo for any reason and without restriction. | Source

Early abecedarian poetry: Psalm 119

The earliest known abecedarii are Semitic; the form was of special value to the Hebrew poets for purposes of expressing religious devotion. Psalm 119 is a strict abecedarius: in its original Hebrew, its twenty-two stanzas total one hundred seventy-six lines. The stanzas follow the Hebrew alphabet in precise sequence and contain dozens of prayers. It is an incredibly complex composition.

Each stanza of Psalm 119 contains eight lines, each of which uses the same initial letter. This makes each stanza of Psalm 119 an octave stanza, which is but one way of expressing the alphabet in an abecedarius. The examples given below illustrate other types of abecedarian sequences.

Note: Hebrew reads from right to left. In the accompanying illustration, the first letter appears to the far right in the top row, and the last to the far left on the last.

A Latin abecedarian hymn

Coelius Sedulius, a Christian poet who lived in the early 400s, authored a Latin hymn in the abecedarian style. Part of the hymn continues to be used even today during the Christmas season. The title translates roughly to "From Lands that See the Sun Arise".

A solis ortus cardine consists of twenty-three stanzas, each of which begins with a letter of the Latin alphabet. This stanzaic progression is the most commonly employed in abecedarian poetry – probably because it’s more than a little difficult to begin multiple lines with the same letter!

For a complete transcription of the hymn, click here.

A solis cantus ordine

This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.  All countries in which copyright extends for the life of the author + 70 years may consider this public domain.
This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. All countries in which copyright extends for the life of the author + 70 years may consider this public domain. | Source

Geoffrey Chaucer

This is a faithful reproduction of a two-dimensional work of art which is well in excess of a century old.  It may be considered in the public domain in the United States and countries with a copyright duration of life plus 100 years or less.
This is a faithful reproduction of a two-dimensional work of art which is well in excess of a century old. It may be considered in the public domain in the United States and countries with a copyright duration of life plus 100 years or less. | Source

Chaucer’s ‘An ABC’

Geoffrey Chaucer was born in or around 1343 and lived to be almost sixty years of age. In that time, he wrote an immense amount of poetry which still survives to this day. His incredible legacy includes major works such as The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde, but also minor short works such as An ABC, which is an abecedarius.

Since Chaucer’s composition is written in the Middle English of his time, it may be difficult for the lay reader (I am here including myself) to interpret, but the above transcription of An ABC is not as hard to read as one might imagine. The alphabet is at least an English one, and though the dialect is unfamiliar, even the casual reader can recognize a great many words. To some extent, it is even possible to infer meanings of those which are unfamiliar from those which are closer to our modern English language. Chaucer’s poem is a nearly perfect sequence, eliminating only J, U, and W. (If he’d managed to include them all, his poem could also be called a panagram).

The abecedarian in prose

Not all abecedarian compositions are poems; the term in a neutral context simply refers to something which is arranged alphabetically. As long as the alphabet is the vehicle by which the composition is “driven”, it can be described as abecedarian. Two excellent examples of this are Dr. Seuss' ABC and Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story. Seuss’ book is an alphabet primer; Ende’s novel consists of twenty-six alphabetically progressive chapters (Chapter 1 begins with “A”, 2 with “B”, and so on).

A visual history: Selected abecedarian compositions


6th century B.C.E.

Psalm 119. Tradition holds that King David of Israel wrote this psalm, but this source suggests otherwise. I have placed the date accordingly, but cannot be certain.


393-394 C.E.

St. Augustine of Hippo composes his abecedarian Psalmus contra partem Donati.


Date unknown? Author d. ca. 450

Sedulius composes his A solis otus cardine


c. 1370s

Chaucer composes his abecedarian An ABC. To see images of an original text, visit the link listed at the conclusion of this article. You'll have to scroll down somewhat, but the images are beautiful!


1963

Theodor Seuss Geisel’s (“Dr. Seuss”) “Dr. Seuss’ ABC: An Amazing Alphabet Book!” is published by Random House.


1979

Michael Ende’s Die unendliche Geschichte is published in Germany. “The Neverending Story”, a translation by Ralph Manheim, is published in 1983 by Doubleday & Co., Inc.

From ancient times to modern

By way of returning to our poetic focus, I will close this with an original composition written in abecedarian poetic form. It is a bit rough, perhaps, and not even close to a panagram, but it will suffice as an example of how one might compose a simple abecedarian poem in today’s modern English. Unlike the preceding examples, this poem uses what is known as astrophic progression, in which the initial letters of successive lines spell the alphabet:

Flame of Nature

A summer sun touches the goldenrod
beneath a noonday sky so perfectly
cerulean, and with a lover's kiss:
Delightful in its dreaming; such
enchanting gold could only be a
flame of nature: share this my vision, friend --
Gold stays but a moment before passing
heavenward, fading soft and slow
into memory.

You may wish to try your hand at writing an abecedarian composition of your own. Perhaps you could tell a story, as did Sedulius, or write a playful instructive piece, as did Dr. Seuss. Just sit down with your alphabet and your muse and see what happens!

Sources / Further Reading


Harfield, D. (September 12, 2010). Answer to "When was Psalm 119 Written?". Retrieved from http://wiki.answers.com/Q/When_was_Psalm_119_written.

Preminger, A. & Brogan, T.V.F., Eds. (1993). The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. New York, NY: MJF Books.

A solis ortus cardine (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org./wiki/A_solis_ortus_cardine.

Sedulius, Coelius. (n.d.) Full text of A solis ortus cardine. Retrieved from http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/sedulius.solis.html.

University of Glasgow. (n.d.) The World of Chaucer: Medieval Books and Manuscripts. Images available at http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/chaucer/works.html.



Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 4 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Thank you for this insightful hub into the history of an unusual but profound poetic form. Voted up and interesting. I've come across these abcdarian poems before in my poetic travels - I think Robert Pinsky the US poet tried one in ABC and there are others over the years which escape me at this present time. I even attempted a haiku alphabet (in a hub, sorry). Look forward to your next article.

    • PoeticVine profile image
      Author

      Leanna Stead 4 years ago from North Carolina, United States

      Thank you, chef-de-jour! I'm glad you enjoyed reading. :) I hadn't even *heard* of the term before I wrote this article, but I had written acrostic poetry and been aware that the translation of Ende's novel was arranged in alphabetical order, as I read it last year.

      I'll have to see if I can find Pinsky's ABC poem -- I have The Figured Wheel, so perhaps it's in that collection. If not, perhaps good old Google will be able to help me out. If you think of others, please feel free to let me know! I'd personally like to have a little more continuity in that visual history timeline -- jumping from the 1370s to 1963 just makes me feel like I'm missing a lot.

      You mention that you tried a haiku alphabet -- is it in a published Hub? I'd like to take a look at it if I'm able -- I love haiku, and have actually written one fairly recently using a word-list style exercise in another Hub I authored. Other than that one, I guess I've written somewhere between thirty and fifty of them -- just a rough estimate, as they are of course incredibly short.

      Thanks again for reading, and I'm looking forward to writing more as well!

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 4 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Yes the haiku I attempted are on a hub - and I've one or two others besides. The Pinsky poem is from Jersey Rain (so Norton informs me.)

      You should put the haiku on a hub too!

    • PoeticVine profile image
      Author

      Leanna Stead 4 years ago from North Carolina, United States

      Very good! I'll take a look around your hubs. :) Thanks for the update on Pinsky's work -- I'll see if I can find it as well.

      Thanks for suggesting I include my past haiku on a hub -- I will likely end up doing that, although I will probably end up placing them within an article of some kind so as to make the content more evergreen. I'm trying to keep my articles to topics which will generate long-term interest for the sake of attracting traffic over longer periods of time. We'll see how it works out -- I haven't been active here for very long at all despite the length of time I've been a registered member.

    • tammyswallow profile image

      Tammy 4 years ago from North Carolina

      Wow, I have tried a lot of poety forms, but not this one. This is very interesting! Seems very challenging!

    • GusTheRedneck profile image

      Gustave Kilthau 4 years ago from USA

      Hello Leanna (PoeticVine) - Interesting stuff. I am way too dumb and unlearned to understand this abecedarian poetry way of doing the lines of poems, but I can understand the need for complicating the poems to make the brain work harder to find out what the poet was trying to say. It occurs to me that it is very likely that abecedarian poem writers would have a hard time figuring out most of the nonsense I come up with. Six will get you a half dozen, so to speak (-er, write).

      Anyway, this was an interesting article about a subject not often discussed. Glad I am to have found it on my computer screen.

      Gus :-)))

    • PoeticVine profile image
      Author

      Leanna Stead 4 years ago from North Carolina, United States

      It certainly can be a challenge! The smallish one I wrote took me a while -- I stopped when I did mainly because it felt "finished", but I was also concerned it would be rather long for the end of a Hub given that I was using the line-by-line (astrophic) progression. If I were trying something like "Alice bicycled carelessly, destroying every farmer's garden", &c. (I think that would also be astrophic), it would have been shorter -- but I like doing the first letter of each line instead.

      There's a Japanese abecedarian form I actually meant to include, but I may do a partner Hub for it as it's a specially named form. It's called "Iroha mojigusari" - the form dictates that the author must: begin the first line with the first letter and end with the second; begin the second line with the second letter and end with the third; and continue that pattern throughout the piece. I think that would be a pretty hefty task! Imagine having to use "x" at the end of *and* the beginning of a line and make it sound poetic.... eek....

      I'm pondering writing on more poetry forms, but want to choose something else unusual so I can write something I've not yet tried as an example. If you have any ideas, please let me know!

    • PoeticVine profile image
      Author

      Leanna Stead 4 years ago from North Carolina, United States

      Hi, Gus -- thank you for visiting!

      I don't think the abecedarian needs to be complicated. It's true that a lot of it ends up that way, but using the alphabet as your letter list is really all that's required. You can write an instructive poem for kids, or do a story like Michael Ende did, or a little instruction book like Dr. Seuss. It's really all in what you as the author want to accomplish -- all that matters is that the letters are in the right place, and you're happy with what you write!

      It comes down to interpretation, as well as what you like. For example, I've tried reading T.S. Eliot any number of times, and I do like his imagery, but I find him in many ways far more difficult to understand than, say, e.e. cummings. (I really enjoy cummings' work... he does interesting things with letters and punctuation which turn out awesome, in my opinion.) It's just up to the individual, I think.

      I guess I'd say my poetry does its job best when the reader takes away something unique from my work. Even if what *I* am trying to say isn't what they take from the experience, they've gained something, and I'm perfectly happy with that. :)

    • ocfireflies profile image

      ocfireflies 4 years ago from North Carolina

      Having been hooked on the abcedarian for such a long time, I was fascinated by the history you provided regarding this poetic style. I love that you described the form in terms of acting as a vehicle. I have used it to drive many an idea home.

    Click to Rate This Article