Cross Word Puzzle

Adele Davidson '75 publishes work on acrostics in George Herbert's poetry.

We're accustomed to reading English poetry horizontally, from left to right. But if we read attentively enough, we'll find that some poets invite us to read their work vertically as well, to discover hidden acrostic messages implanted in the initial letters of the poetic lines.

Associate Professor of English Adele Davidson '75 has discovered just that in the work of the seventeenth-century poet and priest George Herbert. In "Vertical readings of Herbert's The Temple ," an article she recently published in the Times Literary Supplement , Davidson reveals that the metaphysical poet liberally endowed his poems with acrostics and anagrams that deepen the poems' spiritual themes and imagery.

Such word patterns in Herbert's work had been briefly noticed toward the end of the seventeenth century by the disparaging poet John Dryden and critic Joseph Addison, who dismissed Herbert's taste for acrostics and other literary devices as "False Wit." But now, some 375 years after the publication of the poems, Davidson shows that Herbert's acrostics and anagrams are integral elements that amplify the spiritual meaning of the poems in which they appear.

In an interview with The Times of London concerning her discovery, Davidson related that it all began with a case of insomnia. In Spring 2005, while she was teaching a course on Reformation literature with Professor Royal Rhodes of the religious studies department, Davidson found herself unable to sleep one night and reached for a volume of Herbert to prepare for class. "Patterns began to pop out at me," she recalled, and a new research project was born.

Through analysis of Herbert's lyrics, Davidson came to see that "acrostics for Herbert resemble the mysteries of divinity. They are hidden in plain sight. As priest and poet, Herbert would have known the alphabetical acrostics in the psalms of the Old Testament. The word 'acrostic,' from acro ('high') and stich ('verse'), literally means 'at the tip of the verse.'"

What Davidson discovered at the tips of Herbert's lines were initial letters which, when read vertically, reveal words and abbreviations that comment on the main poem. In directing the reader to read down as well as across, the poems themselves become patterns of the cross.

Her examination of the poems in Herbert's 1633 volume The Temple reveals such a wealth of anagrams and acrostics that Davidson is persuaded they were intentionally designed by the poet. "While some of the short words that emerge from the acrostics could result from the accidents of poetic composition," she writes, "the overall effects are so pervasive and so germane to the context of individual poems that they cannot result from coincidence."

The eminent scholar of English Renaissance poetry Alastair Fowler told The Times that he believes a significant percentage of the acrostics discussed by Davidson qualify as "real discoveries." The editor of the Times Literary Supplement , Peter Stothard, writing in his weblog, celebrated Davidson's research as "certainly an event."

In carrying out her research, Davidson says she benefited from the careful editing of Herbert's poems by one of her undergraduate professors, Gerrit Roelofs, in The Major Poets. Roelofs's work revised a volume originally edited by Charles Monroe Coffin, another legendary Kenyon English professor.

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