Definition of Invective
The term invective denotes speech or writing that attacks, insults, or denounces a person, topic, or institution. It involves the use of abusive and negative language. The tool of invective is generally employed in both poetry and prose, to reiterate the significance of the deeply felt emotions of the writer.
Invective Examples in Prose
Example #1: King Lear (By William Shakespeare)
An example of the manner of use of invective in prose can be witnessed through Shakespearean writing in The Tragedy of King Lear. In Act 2, Scene II of King Lear, Kent declares that Oswald is:
“A knave, a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave … and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch …”
Just mark the use of words against a person in quick succession. This is called invective. It is a bit different from abuse, as you can see it yourself.
Example #2: Gulliver’s Travels (By Jonathan Swift)
“I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.”
Swift’s quote above highlights the use of some fascinating and impressive invective.
Invective in Poetry
The use of invective in poetry has its origins in Greece. However, it was popularly employed as a tool in poetry in Rome. Historically, poets have made use of the tool of invective so as to denounce or abuse political and public figures in a sardonic or satirical tone. In early times, writers found it convenient to anonymously publish their invectives.
However, some Grecians, such as Cicero and Juvenal, owned the use of invectives they wrote. The invectives written by them, especially by Catullus, are quite explicit. Back then, invectives had a rhetorical context, however modern use of the tool of invective emphasizes to create a harsh impression.
Some of the well-known invective poems include Invective Against Swans, by Wallace Stevens, An Invective Against Gold, by Anne Kelligrew, and The Moralistic, which was written during the 1600s.
One of the most famous invective poems ever written is Invective Against the Bumblebee, by New Jersey poet Diane Lockward.
The stanzas written below are taken from Diane Lockward’s poem Invective Against the Bumblebee, and serve to illustrate the manner in which the tool of invective is employed in the narration of poems.
“Escapee from a tight cell, yellow-streaked
sex-deprived sycophant to a queen,
you have dug divots in my yard
and like a squatter trespassed in my garage.
I despise you for you have swooped down
on my baby boy, harmless on a blanket of lawn,
his belly plumping through his orange stretch suit,
yellow hat over the fuzz of his head.
Though you mistook him for a sunflower,
I do not exonerate you,
for he weeps in my arms, trembles, and drools,
finger swollen like a breakfast sausage.
Now my son knows pain.
Now he fears the grass.
Fat-assed insect! Perverse pedagogue!
Henceforth, may flowers refuse to open for you.
May cats chase you in the garden.
I want you shellacked by rain, pecked by shrikes,
mauled by skunks, paralyzed by early frost.
May farmers douse your wings with pesticide.
May you never again taste the nectar
of purple clover or honeysuckle.
May you pass by an oak tree just in time
to be pissed on by a dog.”
Function of Invective
Invective is one of the most commonly used devices in the modern poetic framework. The tool of invective can be used in a variety of ways, to highlight the depth of the writer’s emotions for the cause at hand. For instance, the use of high invective involves formal language and creative expression, which creates an entirely different impact than that of low invective, which concerns the use of stock words and images.
The tool of invective also acts as an opportunity for the speaker to convey his heartfelt bitter emotions toward people in power, or other such annoyances. Invective is not, however, a powerful tool of persuasion as sometimes is thought, but is a device employed to get a sort of reaction from the interlocutor.
Invective (also known as ‘vituperation’) is language that denounces or casts blame on somebody or something. Invective can be highly abusive, such as
A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir to a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deni’st the least syllable of thy addition.
~ William Shakespeare, King Lear, II.2
And also sometimes witty:
I see. Well, of course, this is just the sort of blinkered Philistine pig-ignorance I’ve come to expect from you non-creative garbage. You sit there on your loathsome spotty behinds squeezing blackheads, not caring a tinker’s cuss for the struggling artist. You excrement, you whining hypocritical toadies with your colour TV sets and your Tony Jacklin golf clubs and your bleeding Masonic secret handshakes. …Well I wouldn’t become a Freemason now if you went down on your lousy stinking knees and begged me.
~ John Cleese in Monty Python’s The Architect Sketch
The Classical Genre of Invective
The genre of invective was a form of classical libel used in Greek and Roman verse. It was often written anonymously in verse form against public figures. The ancient Greek comedy writer Aristophanes wrote high-spirited satire of public persons and affairs. Through song and dance as well as these blazing invectives his plays also criticize literary and philosophical persona of his day. His comedies aim at illustrating, in humorous and often bawdy detail, the implications of deadly serious political issues, mixing invective and slapstick acting.
Freedom and Invective
Only in free nations are invectives tolerated. The fact that the Athenians had the liberty to speak, even to criticize their own political leaders was a sign of the freedom their society allowed them.
In later Roman times major authors such as Juvenal and Catullus also wrote extended invectives openly and publicly to defame political figures. Any piece from antiquity or from medieval times beginning with Contra, as in Cicero’s Contra Catilinam (‘Against Catiline’) or St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles (‘The higest Against the Gentiles’) are invectives, speeches or writings ‘against’ (contra) something or someone.
Cicero wrote many invectives. Demosthenes the Greek orator during the time of Philip II of Macedon wrote many invectives. His most famous is Against Philip of Macedon, whom Demosthenes saw as a threat to Athenian independence. Caesoninus Pliny wrote invectives against Greek physicians; the church father St. Augustine of Hippo wrote invectives Against the Manicheans, and so forth.
Invectives were a part of public discourse. For example, Martin Luther’s famous ninety-five theses contain several invectives against the Pope of Rome, some of which are quite humorous and exaggerated:
Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.
Invective and humor in invective were also standards among the high born rulers of the eighteenth-century. The language used, whether to praise or to deplore, was more eloquent and expressive (as well as more bawdy) than what we manage today. Jonathan Swift wrote about the second Viscount Allen, a member of the Irish Parliament for Kildare:
Let me now the vices trace,
From the father’s scoundrel race …
In him tell me which prevail,
Female vices most, or male?
What produced him, can you tell?
Human race, or imps of hell? …
Positive and overbearing,
Changing still and still adhering,
Spiteful, peevish, rude, untoward,
Fierce in tongue, in heart a coward,
Reputation ever tearing,
Ever dearest friendship swearing,
Judgement weak and passion stony,
Always various, always wrong.
For example when Tertullian in the early centuries of the Church calls women ‘the devil’s gateway to hell’, is he really berating all women, or is he merely berating the sort of woman that may cause a man to fall?
Likewise Abraham Lincoln often blasted his opponents with hyperbole.
Modernity and Invective
Perhaps we in modern times have lost our sense of humor, our sense of our own pettiness, and become so blasé that we cannot take criticism (humorous or otherwise) from anybody. Here is a modern example of invective:
Back in the mid-90s, I took a pop at Colin Powell for having failed to finish off Saddam Hussein; in a New Yorker interview, he popped back mildly with “Saffire is getting arrogant in his old age’’ (which didn’t rate as genuine vituperation because it was too close to the truth). Even so, at a subsequent New Year’s Eve party, the general felt the need to apologize.
~ William Saffire, New York Times, April, 2003.
William Saffire’s lament here is that Colin Powell’s invective needed no apology. Normal political discourse allows for such, and humor is the only appropriate response to such.
Invective is as old as speech itself; men have always had the ability both humorously (as well as seriously) to insult each other.
In The Inferno, which was written in the high Middle Ages, Dante put many of the people he disagreed with in Hell, giving them the punishment he thought they deserved (mini-invectives). Likewise Johanthan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels served up a book replete with invectives against political figures and institutions of his day (eighteenth century). Sharp wit and strong words which indiscriminately lash out at folly were the standard public discourse of previous centuries.
For example …
…Algernon Charles Swinburne, a Victorian era English poet, held that in calling Ralph Waldo Emerson ‘a gap-toothed and hoary-headed ape’, he had confined himself to ‘language of the strictest reserve’.
…Disraeli said of a political opponent, “He has committed every crime that does not require courage.”
…Mark Twain charged that Kipling ‘‘did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote.’’
In modern times any of the above accusations spoken publicly could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars in punitive damages should the accused decide to file suit.
Not so then …
…Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was called ‘a babbling old woman’ by Horace Walpole, who further more added that “prejudice and bigotry, and pride and presumption, and arrogance and pedantry are the hags that brew his ink.’’ No suit.
…Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) never brought suit against Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) for saying of him, “I have no wish to know anyone sitting in a sewer and adding to it.’’ Swinburne was probably relieved that Carlyle did not treat him as he himself treated Emerson. No suit.
…Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) said of George Meredith (1828-1909) that “As a writer, he has mastered everything except language; as a novelist, he can do everything except tell a story; as an artist, he is everything except articulate.’’ No suit.
…George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), in a kindly mood, told Chesterton (1874-1936): “I know everything you say is bunkum, though a fair amount of it is inspired bunkum.’’ Sinclair Lewis said of one of his critics who had annoyed him: “I denounce Mr. Bernard De Voto as a fool and a tedious and egotistical fool, as a liar and a pompous and boresome liar.’’ No suit.
Such were common speeches that people slung against each other in centuries gone by. Constance M. Furey comments on how things have changed:
The scathing insults that fill texts by sixteenth-century Christian reformers can shock even a jaded modern reader. In the prefatory letter to The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), for example, Martin Luther begins by wishing for “grace and peace in Christ” before launching his attack on the “brainless and illiterate beast in papist form” and its “whole filthy pack of … asses,” and concludes by exhorting his reader to rise up against the Catholic hierarchy: “Continue courageously, noble sir; in this way the disgrace of the Bohemian name will be abolished, and the sludge of the harlot’s lies and whoring shall again be taken up in her breast.” Or consider the nasty invectives by the English Lord Chancellor and future Catholic martyr, Thomas More, against not only Luther but also Matthew Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English. More calls these men the “devil’s disciples”: Luther “a pimp, an apostate, a rustic, and a friar”; and Tyndale “a babbler, and a devil’s ape.” Even Desiderius Erasmus, the erudite Catholic humanist, filled his writings with insults both satirical and blunt and proclaimed that theologians “are more stupid than any pig”. Fierce words commonly appear in the midst of religious controversies, and one may choose to skim past this hyperbolic outrage in search of the real message. Insulting rhetoric, however, does provide a sensitive barometer of religious concerns in the sixteenth century and yields unexpectedly complex answers to a simple question. What does negative speech accomplish?
~ Constance M. Furey , Invective and Discernment in Martin Luther, D. Erasmus, and Thomas More, Indiana University
Are we too sensitive today? Would we feel put off if it were said of one of us that we were “too arrogant in our old age?” Do we have a RIGHT not to be offended by those around us? Is this one of the rights that the Founding Fathers in their otherwise infinite wisdom forgot to include in the Bill of Rights? Is our lust for respect so strong that we need to secure it by laws prohibiting other people to express their opinions in public speech?
As a society we get offended over issues of gender, race, religion, and politics if someone casts disparaging remarks on our pet issues or pet institutions. Sometimes our ‘rights’ not to be offended trumps our need as a people to exhibit good will, humor, wit and a light-hearted attitude towards others. Being too sensitive can bar honest public discourse on important subjects. Nobody can teach us proper humility as well as our enemies can.
The Context of Invective
In the past, it was part of a speaker’s skills to be able to sling commonplace-type abuses around. It was understood as such and not taken seriously. In the past, there was a rhetorical context within which the very norm and rhetorical skill of discourse included throwing commonplace praises and blames around.
Today we do not have that rhetorical context. Every word spoken is taken literally. We have lost the rhetorical hermeneutic within which to interpret what someone says, praise, blame, or otherwise.
We can no longer sling abuses around because we as people cannot take it. We do not know HOW to take it, rhetorically speaking, interpretively speaking. Perhaps the bottom line is that today we are simply not educated enough. Or at least the way we are educated lacks this crucial component.