Acrostic, or a (un)Original Idea Thought up by Martynas Mažvydas

A classical acrostic is a poetical literary composition, in which the first letters in each line of a poetical work, read from the bottom going upwards, form a word or a phrase vertically, thus weaving a word or a phrase into a single verse. The same term is also used to define a literary tool of composing such a poem. In ancient Greece, later in Rome, acrostics were traditionally used to interweave the name of the author or the addressee into the poem. In medieval times, this tradition did not disappear, with the acrostic acquiring a certain mystical, even magical function. In the medieval period, it was believed that an additional word or a phrase disguised in such a way could influence the thoughts of the unsuspecting reader and become ingrained in his memory. Such an approach might have originated from intensive studies of the Bible. Certain types of acrostics are inwrought into some texts of the Hebrew Old Testament (mostly psalms). One way or another, following the old tradition, the authors of such poems were encouraged to enweave acrostics in such a way as to make them appear the least noticeable, detectable only if someone were specifically looking for them.

In Lithuania, the term of acrostic is known among quite a numerous community. The reason for such a widespread knowledge is that Martians Mažvydas, author of the first Lithuanian book The Catechism, released in 1547 in Konigsberg, signed it namely in this way. Martynas Mažvydas is believed by many to have been the originator of this idea. He is also widely thought to have demonstrated his poetic skill and excellence by introducing an acrostic, thus expressing a certain protest against the prevailing ethical standards of those times, demanding that compilers and translators of religious books assume the role merely of humble intermediaries, with the aim of spreading the word of God rather than seek self-promotion by immortalizing their names.

Hide and seek between the lines: vanity or modesty?

Actually, Martynas Mažvydas did not devise any original scheme introducing the acrostic. It is a well-established fact that when translating the relevant text to be incorporated into the Lithuanian Catechism, he relied to a large extent on the accomplishments of Polish Protestants, first and foremost those of Jan Seklucjan. The tradition to sign using acrostics was widespread in the Polish literature since the Medieval times. Thus, after intensive research was conducted in the mid-20th century on the Polish pieces of writing dating to the Medieval period, as many as 19 authors were identified, previously held anonymous. During the Reformation, acrostics became a popular device among Protestant creators and translators of psalms. In 1559, the aforementioned Jan Seklucjan published a hymnal, in which as many as three outstanding men of letters used acrostics as a means of signature.

According to the opinion of some literary historians, the authors with a university educational background were still somewhat ashamed at that time of using authentic names as a signature for their artwork, written not in Latin but in the national language, which was considered to be “vulgar” and “used only by commoners.” To disguise their genuine name, they preferred to use acrostics or pseudonyms.

Thus, the Mažvydas’ idea could only be regarded as original within the context of the old Lithuanian writing. The only distinctive feature, making him stand apart from the abovementioned Polish men of letters, is that Martynas Mažvydas immortalized himself at the very beginning of the Catechism, in the rhymed preface, which is at the same time the first printed Lithuanian poem. He chose to use a fashionably Latinized version of his name, MARTINUS MASVIDIUS, for his acrostic.

It is obvious that the acrostic used by Martynas Mažvydas is devised strictly following the medieval rules, that is, it is truly well hidden. For this purpose, even three tricks have been invoked. Firstly, the acrostic starts not with the first but only with the third line of the text. Secondly, the first line begins with a big highlighted B, as if deliberately intended to distract the reader’s attention. Lastly, every other line is pulled away from the edge, as if to imitate the graphical form of the then fashionable Latin elegiac distichon (otherwise called an elegiac couplet). As a result, the text looks “blocky,” whereas the acrostic woven into it is hardly noticeable.

It is not that difficult to enweave an acrostic into one’s poem. It suffices to choose the words at the beginning of the lines, starting with the desirable letter. The task is much more challenging during the translation of a literary work written by an outstanding poet, for example, a hymn by Martin Luther. It should be noted that in Martynas Mažvydas times translators were imposed the requirement of maximum accuracy, even to the point of demanding almost literal word-for-word translation. However, the predecessor of the Lithuanian system of writing must have been a highly ambitious personality, as is shown by his surviving letters. He must have been determined to hold his own position and not to lag behind the Polish poets. It has to be acknowledged that in the end he succeeded in achieving his goal. In the third edition of the publication, prepared by Martynas Mažvydas, under the title Forma krikštymo (Eng. Form of Baptism) (the publication was released in the same year as the aforementioned hymnal by Jan Seklucjan), we can find the hymn by Martin Luther, translated by Martynas Mažvydas, with an acrostic of MARTINUSS MASVIDAS. The ending of the last name is no longer Latin, it is written in Lithuanian instead.

The fashion of the mosaic of letter

During the times of Mature and Late Renaissance (Mannerism) and particularly during the Baroque epoch, an acrostic gained widespread popularity and became one of the most popular literary games. In the second half of the 16th century, no more attempts were made to disguise acrostics from view. On the contrary, they were highlighted to the extent possible and proudly referred to in the headlines of the works. Furthermore, attempts were undertaken to revive more sophisticated forms of acrostics, created by ancient poets. At the same time, new and much more complicated forms were invented. The intended desirable words were interwoven into the text not only as the first letters, but also as the second and middle letters of the lines and/or criss-cross, not only vertical method, as used to be the case in the past, was applied. The acrostics had to be read not only from the top downwards, but also from the bottom upwards. The texts with acrostics interwoven into them could at times acquire complex geometrical shapes. However, during this period, such a sophisticated way of signing via the use of acrostics was no longer used by humble poets. From then onwards, they were used to immortalize the names and titles of the nobility and rulers, whereas in the books of religious content acrostics became a means of immortalizing the names of Jesus, Mary and the Saints.

It is worthwhile mentioning that in 1619, a publisher from Gdansk, working on a new edition of the hymnal by Jan Seklucian, destroyed the acrostics inwrought in the text, by changing the order of the words and replacing some of them with different synonyms. In the preface, the publisher provides an explanation that the hymnal in question is intended to glorify the God rather than promote the fame of certain persons. Furthermore, the acrostics are known to have allegedly incurred ridicule upon the entire Protestant community and therefore turned into a convenient target used by the ideological Catholic opponents (a search of akrostychs is believed to have become anything but a pious pastime for quite a few readers of the hymnal).

Still later, during the Age of Enlightenment, the aforementioned literary games which prevailed in the Baroque epoch, were started to be regarded as mere dalliance. They finally acquired the status of a “despicable” literary device during the Age of Romanticism, which swept into oblivion all “artificial” poetry, based on logical reasoning and constrained by strict rules. Eventually, creative works of such nature ceased to be an object of interest to the historians of culture and history. Thus, it should not be surprising that even an acrostic, validating the authorship of the first Lithuanian book, faded into oblivion and remained unnoticeable and invisible until 1938, when it was accidentally found by the Polish linguist Jan Safarewicz. Having made a perusal of all the writings by Martynas Mažvydas, he came across the second acrostic as well.

The author of The Catechism could have hardly cherished such high hopes of hiding his authentic name thus well.

Eglė Patiejūnienė