The term ‘invective’ refers to speech or writing which is denunciatory, abusive or vituperative. The term is related to the verb inveigh, ‘to bring in’ or ‘introduce’ or ‘denounce’; as in the phrase ‘inveigh against’.
In literature examples of invective are to be found fairly evenly distributed in verse and prose, and is closely associated with satire, lampoon, and caricature. Many writers have employed invective for a variety of purposes, mainly to express dislike, disgust, contempt, and even hatred. It is often directed against a particular person (e.g. Junius on the Duke of Grafton in The Letters of Junius); occasionally against a class or group (e.g. Jonathan Swift on the English nobility in Gulliver’s Travels); against an institution (e.g. William Prynne on the stage in Histriomastix); a scene (e.g. Tobias Smollett on the night-life in London in Humphry Clinker); and on life itself (e.g. Jeremy Taylor in Of Holy Dying).
As a mode of expression invective is very ancient. Archilochus (7th C. BC) had a reputation for being a mordant wit (Eustathius called him ‘scorpion-tongued’) in his writings, of which, unhappily, few are extant. There are plentiful instances of invective in the plays of Aristophanes, and there are supposed to have been examples in the Sermones of Lucilius (180–102 BC), but these last have not survived. Persius (AD 34–62) was influenced by Lucilius, and in his First Satire is fairly abusive of the poetasters and decadent literary tastes of his period. But the greatest of inveighers in Classical literature is unquestionably Juvenal (1st c. AD), who wrote ferocious attacks the vices and abuses of the Roman ‘life-style’. He was particularly savage at the expense of the rich, and of women – to whom he devoted his Sixth Satire: a sustained and bitter diatribe in which women are compared unfavourably to many different animals.
There is little in the way of invective in European literature from Juvenal’s age until the late Middle Ages and early Tudor times, if we except some Latin verse, some Goliardic poetry, the occasional indignant outburst from the pulpit (like Wulfstan’s celebrated homily to the English c. 1014), and the flytings of some Scottish poets like William Dunbar. We find, also, some instances in the poetry of William Langland and in the ballades of Villon. Then comes John Skelton who lashed out in his good-humoured and boisterous fashion at the evils of society and at the expense of individuals (particularly Cardinal Wolsey). More moderate invective is to be found in the Folly Literature of the period, and John Knox’s famous First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558) is a splendid example of objurgation.
The late Tudor dramatists and pamphleteers found invective a most effective weapon. Good examples in Shakespeare’s plays are to be found in: Troilus and Cressida (I, ii); King Lear (II, ii; IV, i); Timon of Athens (IV, i); Coriolanus (III, iii); Cymbeline (II, v) and The Tempest (I, ii; II, ii). Thomas Lodge, John Marston, and Ben Jonson were other writers of the period well capable of exploiting abusive language. Jonson’s Volpone, or The Fox, The Alchemist and Every Man in His Humour are famous examples of invective. A curiosity of this time was King James I’s A Counterblaste to Tobacco (1604). Among 17th c. writers Samuel Butler’s Hudibras and John Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe and Absalom and Achitophel, Alexander Pope’s Epistle to Arbuthnot, Epistle to Sir Richard Temple and The Dunciad), Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels are famous examples of invective. We also find invective in the works of Robert Burns, John Byron, Thomas Macaulay, Charles Dickens, W.M.Thackeray, Thomas Carlyle, A.S. Swinburne, G.B. Shaw, Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, to name only a few.
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