Examples of Invective in Prose and Poetry

Invective is a literary term which is used in speech and writing. It sheds strong verbal abuse at a person or thing. It also involves the vehement expression of bitter fundamental opposition using condemnation, accusation and harsh criticism.

Invective appears across prose and poetry, which serves important rhetorical functions. The term has been derived from anger and a desire to destroy the reputation of the target through oral or written vitriol. It aims to damage the subject’s standing morally, socially or politically.

What is Invective?

Invective employs language attacking and denouncing someone or something. It unties verbal assaults using:

  • Bitter accusation and personal attacks
  • Sarcasm and mockery
  • Harsh criticism and slander
  • Curses, oaths, and ill-wishes
  • Threats and intimidation
  • Vicious humor and obscenity

Importance of Invective

Though often abusive, invective serves important rhetorical functions:

  • Condemns perceived wrongdoing and corruption
  • Rallies allies through outrage and calls for change
  • Discredits and weakens opponents through character assassination
  • Expresses frustration and outrage through cathartic release
  • Entertains through spectacle, shock, and scandal

Invective allows writers to fortifies language against enemies and releases bitter reflections on troubling issues. The emotional intensity makes it a powerful device.

Examples of Invective in Prose


“A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift

“I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food.”

The excerpt employs invective through its shocking description of infants as potential food. The speaker while talking about eating a one-year old child strongly criticizes the practice, possibly slavery that makes such mistreatment of human life possible.

The speaker portrays babies as food for sale and launches an intense rhetorical criticism of any system that mistreats vulnerable young humans. The disturbing imagery conveys the belief that a mindset which views others as objects should be condemned. Through unsettling language, the passage calls out participation in and subtly seeks to reject perspectives that allow such shocking dehumanization. The vivid metaphor of cooking babies applies outrageous imagery to challenge and shock the listener.


“Candide” by Voltaire

“His judgment is as sound as his heart is hard…Shameful that he’s a commander of our troops!”

The speaker employs harsh criticism and accusations to attack the subject as both callous and incompetent. The first statement “his judgment is as sound as his heart is hard” uses sarcasm to inversely condemn his poor character, which portrays his heart negatively as hard and unfeeling.

The second phrase directly labels this an issue of shame categorizing his holding a leadership military role as outright disgraceful. The cutting remarks together degrade both the individual’s ability to lead fairly and his moral values, which diminishes his professional competence and personal character.

He sharply criticizes the sensitive issues like duty and ethics. The speaker forcefully protests this person holding power, which tries to erode public trust in him. The invective seeks to spur rejection of his position through bitterly questioning his qualifications on multiple fronts.


HL Mencken’s Boobus Americanus

“Politics under democracy consists almost wholly of the discovery, chase and scotching of bugaboos. The statesman becomes, in the last analysis, a mere witch-hunter.”

The passage conveys an extremely critical perspective of democratic politics through the metaphorical depiction of statesmen as “witch-hunters” irrationally pursuing “bugaboos.”

The speaker harshly diminishes the validity and gravity of democratic leadership by characterizing political figures as engaged in a senseless chase to vanquish imaginary threats. The passage implies any problems addressed are not real issues but invented bogeys by comparing their role to the irrational persecution of witches.

The mocking, harsh analogy aims to undermine confidence in democratic governance by painting its leaders as no better than reactionaries chasing imaginary threats. Through this unflattering comparison intended to invite skepticism, the author expresses a hostile, contemptuous attitude toward the foundation of democratic political participation.

Examples of Invective in Prose
Examples of Invective in Prose

Examples of Invective in Poetry


“Dulce Et Decorum” Est by Wilfred Owen

“If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face…”

The stanza contains harsh condemnation of racist violence through its disturbing depiction of a lynching. The speaker vividly represents the brutal experience from the perspective of the perpetrators – picturing them inflicting agony without remorse.

This forcefully diminishes any weak rationalization for such brutality. The speaker aims to surface feelings of intense moral objection toward these actions by engaging the reader with the wrenching image of the victim’s “white eyes writhing.” He while quoting the distressed writhing eyes conveys outrage, which highlights the humanity and suffering willfully ignored.

The confronting language calls attention to the unconscionable cruelty and demands its cessation by engaging the reader vicariously in the cruel scene. The speaker voices impassioned opposition to such sanctioned sadism.


“Damned Mob” by Virgil

“Slaves! A degenerate mob and destined for death – did you believe me too powerless to harm you?”

The speaker employs extreme condemnation, verbal attacks and allegations of inferiority to vilify the targets of the passage. The speaker demeans their worth and capabilities by labeling them “slaves” and a “degenerate mob”. He while accusing them of being “destined for death” degrades and portrays them as feeble and temporary.

The speaker implies criticism of their judgment by provocatively asking rhetorical questions, essentially ridiculing them as foolish for underestimating potential retaliation. The speaker cumulatively creates an openly hostile diatribe clearly aimed at stoking anger and resentment in the targets it addresses so scornfully.

He menacingly asserts a capacity to harm them in an attempt to undermine any confidence or defiance the oppressed group may harbor.


“Satire” by Juvenal

“Distended bladders full of sloth and sleep burst at the blows of a switch though lightly applied.”

The passage employs harsh, contemptuous language to denounce the targets as lazy and inert. The metaphor of swollen “bladders” dehumanizes them and reduces to mere containment vessels for undesirable traits like idleness and excess rest.

The speaker conveys disgust at how easily these overblown carriers of vice can be made to rupture when faced with even mild adversity. He portraying the objects of criticism as not just bloated with negative qualities.

The mocking tone and imagery clearly signal the speaker’s disdain and aim to likewise encourage scorn rather than empathy in others towards those targeted by the unflattering metaphors.


“To the Ladies” by Lady Mary Chudleigh

“Wife and servant are the same, but only differ in the name.”

The line employs harsh criticism by insultingly equating a wife’s role to that of a servant. The speaker diminishes a wife’s status to essentially being enslaved through marriage.

The speaker pointedly states that wives and servants differ only in job title. This accusatorily implies women lose autonomy and self-direction when marrying. He provocatively asserts this generalized equivalence between homemaker and domestic laborer.

Through this caustic dismissal of any distinction between the vocations, the speaker attempts to provoke scrutiny and reconsideration of normalized marital imbalances and ingrained hierarchical assumptions.

Related Terms

Here are two literary terms related to invective:

1- Satire

Satire often employs invective by mocking or criticizing people and institutions, using humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose flaws. While invective directly attacks a target, satire does so more indirectly by holding follies up for scorn in a humorous way.

“A Modest Proposal” uses satire and invective to condemn English mistreatment of the Irish poor.

2- Polemic

A polemic text presents a controversial argument in strong, oppositional language. Polemics often utilize invective attacks on those with differing views to argue passionately for one perspective.

Mencken’s “Boobus Americanus” essay polemically critiques American politics using invective.

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