Legend of the Large Mouth

Food is one of the recurrent themes of Victorian Nonsense and Edward Lear certainly used it quite a lot; some of his limericks present gluttony as rather scary, for instance ther “Old Man of Calcutta”:

The “Old man of the South”:

As well as the “Old Person” with the habit of feeding “upon Rabbits”:

Impressive images of enormous mouths had already been produced by Robert Seymour to illustrate Robert Chambers’s “Legend of the Large Mouth,” which originally appeared in his The Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1826), when it was reprinted in The Odd Volume; or, Book of Variety: Illustrated by Two Odd Fellows, Robert Seymour and Robert Cruikshank (1830). Here is the frontispiece to the whole volume, while the relative illustration is at the end of the story, just like in the volume:


“Here’s a large mouth indeed!” …..
SHAKESPEARE – ‘King John’.

Arriving one evening at an inn in Glasgow, I was shown into a room which already contained a promiscuous assemblage of travellers. Amongst these gentlemen—‘commercial’ gentlemen chiefly—there was one whose features struck me as being the most ill-favoured I had ever beheld. He was a large pursy old man, with forehead “villanous low,” hair like bell-ropes, eyes the smallest and most porkish of all possible eyes, and a nose which showed no more prominence in a side-view than that of the moon, as exhibited in her first quarter upon a freemason’s apron. All these monstrosities were, however, as beauties, as absolute perfections, compared with the mouth—the enormous mouth, which, grinning beneath, formed a sort of rustic basement to the whole superstructure of his facial horrors. This mouth—if mouth it could be called, which bore so little resemblance to the mouths of mankind in general—turned full upon me as I entered, and happening at the moment to be employed in a yawn, actually seemed as if it would have willingly received me into its prodigious crater, and consigned me to the fate of Empedocles, without so much as a shoe being left to tell the tale.

The company of a traveller’s room is generally very stiff, every man sitting by his own table in his own corner, with his back turned upon the rest. It was not so, however, on the present occasion. The most of the present company seemed to have been so long together in the hotel as to have become very gracious with each other; while any recent comers, finding themselves plumped into a society already thawed and commingled, had naturally entered into the spirit of the rest. Soon discovering how matters stood, I joined in the conversation, and speedily found that the man with the large mouth was one of the most polite and agreeable of mankind. He was one of those old, experienced gentlemen of the road, who know everything that is necessary to be known, and are never at a loss about anything. His jokes, his anecdotes, his remarks, were all excellent, and kept the rest bound, as it were, in a chain. The best of him was, that he seemed quite at ease on the subject of his mouth.

No doubt he was conscious of his preternatural ugliness—for whatever may be said about the blinding effect of self-love, and so forth, I hold that the most of people know pretty nearly how they stand as to personal attractions ; but he had none of that boggling, unsteady, uncomplacent deportment, so remarkable in the generality of ill-looking people. On the contrary, there was an air of perfect self-satisfaction about him, which told that he either was so familiar with the dreadful fact as to mind it not, or that he was a thorough man of the world, above considering so trivial a particular, or that he was rich, and could afford to be detested. It was curious, however, that even while he almost convulsed the rest with his jokes, he never laughed in the least himself. He evidently dared not; the guffaw of such a man must have produced consequences not to be calmly contemplated., Part, indeed, of the humorous effect of his conversation arose from the cautious way in which he managed his month. A small aperture at one side, bearing the same proportion to the whole that the wicket of a carriage-gate does to the whole gate itself, served for the emission of his words. Anything else would have been a mere waste of lip.

On my ordering refreshment, I was informed by the company, that in consideration of this being the anniversary of a distinguished historical event, they had agreed to sup together in a rather more formal way than usual, and that they would be happy if I would join them. Having assented to the proposal, I began to reflect with some anxiety upon the probable conduct of the Mouth at table. How so extraordinary a feature would behave, what it would ask for, after what manner it would masticate, and, above all, how much it would devour, were to me subjects of the most interesting speculation. The wicket won’t do there (thought I to myself), or I’m much mistaken. Yet again,—so ran my thoughts,—many large men have been known to eat very little, while your true devourers are found to be lean, shrivelled creatures, who do not seem to be ever the better of it. “A large mouth,” says the Scottish proverb, “has always a good luck for its meat.” That may be, thought I, and yet the large mouth may be quite indifferent to what it is so sure of getting. All kinds of ideas connected with this subject ran through my mind; but in the end I found it all a riddle. The Mouth might prove either gluttonous or abstemious, without exciting more surprise by the one event than by the other.

By-and-by some one asked a waiter if supper was nearly ready, and on an answer in the affirmative being given, I observed the Mouth suddenly bustle up, and assume an air of eager promptitude that almost seemed to decide the question. The man rose, and, going to a corner of the room where his great-coat was hanging, brought forth a small package, which he proceeded to untie at a side-table. The only article it contained was a spoon, which he immediately brought forward and laid upon the table, accompanying the action with an air that might have befitted a surgeon in arranging his instruments for an operation. I had no longer any doubt as to the gastronomical character of the Mouth, for here was an article that might have served in the nursery of Glumdalclitch. It was an antique silver implement, with a short handle, and a rim about four inches in diameter, like an ordinary saucer Observing the curiosity of the company to be strongly excited, the old man showed it round with good-natured politeness, telling us that he had been so long accustomed at home to the use of this goodly article, that he could now hardly discuss either soup or dessert without it, and therefore made a point of carrying it along with him in his travels.

“But, indeed, gentlemen,” said he, “why should I make this a matter of delicacy with you? The truth is, the spoon has a history, and my mouth—none of the least, you see—has also a history. If you feel any curiosity upon these points, I will give you a biographical account of the one, and an autobiographical account of the other, to amuse you till supper is ready.”

To this frank proposal we all cordially agreed, and the old man, sitting down with the spoon in his hand, commenced a narrative which I shall here give in the third person.

His mouth was the chieftain and representative of a long ancestral line of illustrious and most extensive mouths, which had flourished for centuries at a place called Tullibody. According to tradition, the mouth came into the family by marriage. An ancestor of the speaker wooed, and was about to wed, a lady of great personal attractions, but no fortune, when his father interfered, and induced him, by the threat of disinheritation on the one hand, and the temptation of great wealth on the other, to marry another dame, the heiress of a large fortune and large mouth, both bequeathed to her by her grandfather, one of the celebrated “kail-suppers of Fife.” When his resolution was communicated to the tocherless lady, she was naturally very much enraged, and wished that the mouth of her rival might descend, in all its latitude, to the latest generation of her faithless swain’s posterity; after which she took her bed … and married another lover, her second-best, next week, by way of revenge.

The country people, who pay great attention to the sayings of ladies condemned to wear the willow, waited anxiously for the fulfilment of her malediction, and accordingly shook their heads and had their own thoughts, when the kail – supper’s descendant brought forth a son whose mouth, even in his swaddling-clothes, reflected back credit on her own. The triumph of the ill-wisher was considered complete, when the second, the third, and all the other children, were found to be distinguished by this feature ; and what gave the triumph still more poignancy was, that the daughters were found to be no more exempted than the sons from the family doom. In the second generation, moreover, instead of being softened or diluted away, the mouth rather increased, and so it had done in every successive generation since that time. The rape having been very prolific, it was now spread so much that there was scarcely a face in Tullibody or the neighbourhood altogether free of the contagion; so that the person addressing us, who had his permanent residence there, could look round him upon several hundreds of kindred mouths, with all the patriarchal feelings of the chief of a large Highland clan.

If there had been any disposition in the family to treat their fate ill-humouredly, it would have been neutralised by the luck which evidently accompanied the introduction and transmission of this singular feature. So far, however, from entertaining any grudge or regret upon the subject, it had been the habit of the family to treat it as a capital joke, and to be always the first to laugh at it themselves. So much was this the case, that a wealthy representative 0f the family, about a century ago, founded, not an hospital or a school, but a spoon, which should be handed down from mouth to mouth as a practical and traditionary jest upon the family feature, and, though not entailed, be regarded, he hoped, as a thing never to be parted with for any consideration, unless fate should capriciously contract the mouths of his descendants to such a degree as to render its use inconvenient. This elegant symbol, after passing through the hands of a long train of persons, who had each been more able than another to use it effectively, came at length into the possession of the individual now addressing us—a person evidently qualified to de full justice to the intentions of his ancestor.

It was, therefore, with the apprehension of something awful, that after the conclusion of the story, and the introduction of supper, I took a place at the well-spread board. In sitting down, I cast a look at the Mouth. It was hovering, like a prodigious rainbow, over the horizon of the table, uncertain where to pitch itself. There was an air of terrible resolution about it, which made me almost tremble for what was to ensue. It was evident that we were to have ” a scene.”

The Mouth—for so it might be termed ‘par excellence’ was preferred by acclamation to the head of the table,—a distinction awarded, as I afterwards understood, not so much on account of its superior greatness, as in consideration of its seniority, though I am sure it deserved the ‘pas’ on both accounts. The inferior and junior mouths all sat down at different distances from the great Mouth, like satellites round a mighty planet. It uttered a short, gentleman-like grace, and then began to ask its neighbours what they would have. Some asked for one thing, some for another, and in a short time all were served except itself. For its own part it complained of weak appetite, and expressed a fear that it should not be able to take anything at all. I could scarcely credit the declaration. It added, in a singularly prim tone of voice, that, for its part, it admired the taste of Beau Tibbs in Goldsmith—” Something nice, and a little will do. I hate your immense loads of meat; that’s country all over.” Hereupon, I plucked up courage, and ventured to look at it again. It was still terrible, though placid. Its expression was that of a fresh and strong warrior, who hesitates a moment to consider into what part of a thick battle he shall plunge himself, or what foes he shall select as worthy of particular attack. Its look belied its word; but again I was thrown back by its words belying its look. It said to a neighbour of mine, that it thought it might perhaps manage the half of the tail of one of the herrings at his elbow, if he would be so kind as carve. Was there ever such a puzzling mouth! I was obliged again to give credit to words; yet again was I disappointed. My neighbour thinking it absurd to mince such a matter as a “Glasgow magistrate,” handed up a whole one to the chairman. The Mouth received it with a torrent of refusals and remonstrances, in the midst of which it began to eat, and I heard it continue to mumble forth expostulations, in a fainter and fainter tone, at the intervals of bites, for a few seconds; till, behold, the whole corporate substance of the burghal dignitary had melted away to a long meagre skeleton! When done, its remonstrances changed into a wonder how it should have got through so plump a fish; it was perfectly astonishing; it had never eaten a whole herring in its life before; it was an unaccountable miracle.

I did not hear the latter sentences of its wonderments; but, towards the conclusion, heard the word “fowl” distinctly pronounced. The fowls lying to my hand, I found myself under the necessity of entering into conference with it, though I felt a mortal disinclination to look it in the mouth, lest I should betray some symptom of emotion inconsistent with good manners. Drawing down my features into a resolute pucker, and mentally vowing I would speak to it though it should blast me, I cast my eyes slowly and cautiously towards it, and made inquiry as to its choice of bits. In return for my interrogation, I received a polite convulsion, intended for a smile, and a request, out of which I only caught the important words, “breast” and ” wing.” I made haste to execute the order; and, on handing away the desired viands, received from the mouth another grateful convulsion, and then, to my great relief, all was over!

Well, thought I, at this juncture, a herring and a fragment of fowl are no such great matters ; perhaps the Mouth will prove quite a natural mouth after all. In brief space, however, the chairman’s plate was announced as again empty; and I heard it receive, discuss, and answer various proposals of replenishment made to it by its more immediate neighbours. I thought I should escape; but no—the fowl was really so good that it thought it would trouble me for another breast, if I would be so kind. I was of course obliged to look at it again, in order to receive its request in proper form; when neglecting this time my former preparations of face, I had nearly committed myself by looking it full in the mouth with my eyes wide open, and without having screwed my facial-muscles into their former resolute astringency. However, instantly apprehending the amount of its demands, my glance at the Mouth fortunately required to be only rnomentary, and I found immediate relief from all danger in the ensuing business of carving. Yet even that glance was in itself a dreadful trial—it sufficed to inform me that the Mouth was now more terrible than before—that there was a fearful vivacity about it, a promptitude, an alacrity, and energy, which it did not formerly exhibit. Should this increase, thought I, it will soon be truly dreadful. I handed up a whole fowl to it, in a sort of desperation. It made no remonstrances, as in the case of the herring, at the abundance of my offering. So far from that, it seemed to forgive my disobedience with the utmost goodwill; received the fowl, dispatched it with silence and celerity, and then began to look abroad for further prey. Indeed, it now began to crack jokes upon itself …a sportive species of suicide. It spoke of the spoon; lamented that, after all, there should be no soups at table whereon it might have exhibited itself; and finally vowed that it would visit the deficiencies of the supper upon the dessert, even unto the third and fourth dish of ‘blancmange’.

The proprietor of the mouth then laid down the spoon upon the table, there to lie in readiness till such time as he should find knives and forks of no farther service—as the Scottish soldiery in former times used to lay their shields upon the ground while making use of their spears. I now gave up all hopes of the Mouth observing any propriety in its future transactions. Having finished my own supper, I resolved to set myself down to observe all its sayings and doings. Its placidity was now gone—its air of self-possession lost. New powers seemed to be every moment developing themselves throughout its vast form—new and more terrible powers. It was beginning to have a wild look! It was evident that it was now ‘fleshed’ —that its naturally savage disposition, formerly dormant for want of excitement, was now rising tumultuously within it—that it would soon perform such deeds as would scare us all!

It had engaged itself, before I commenced my observations, upon a roast gigot of mutton, which happened to lie near it. This it soon nearly finished. It then cast a look of fearful omen at a piece of cold beef, which lay immediately beyond, and which, being placed within reach by some kind neighbour, it immediately commenced to, with as much fierceness as it had just exemplified in the case of the mutton. The beef also was soon laid waste, and another look of extermination was forthwith cast at a broken pigeon-pie, which lay still farther off. Hereupon the eye had scarcely alighted, when the man nearest it, with laudable promptitude, handed it upwards. Scarcely was it laid on the altar of destruction, when it disappeared too, and a fourth, and a fifth, and a sixth look, were successively cast at other dishes, which the different members of the party as promptly sent away, and which the Mouth as promptly dispatched.

By this time all the rest of the party were lying upon their oars, observing with leisurely astonishment the progress of the surviving, and, as it appeared to them, endless feeder. He went on, rejoicing in his strength, unheeding their idleness and wonder, his very soul apparently engrossed in the grand business of devouring. They seemed to enter into a sort of tacit I compact, or agreement, to indulge and g facilitate him in his progress, by making themselves, as it were, his servitors. Whatever dish he looked at, therefore, over the wide expanse of the table, immediately disappeared from its place. One after another, they trooped off towards the head of the table, like the successive brigades which Wellington dispatched, at Waterloo, against a particular held of French artillery; and still, dish after dish, like said brigades, came successively away, broken, diminished, annihilated. Fish, flesh, and fowl disappeared at the glance of that awful eye, as the Roman fleet withered and vanished before the grand burning-glass of Archimedes. The end of all things seemed at hand. The Mouth was arrived at a perfect transport of voracity! It seemed no more capable of restraining itself than some great engine, full of tremendous machinery, which cannot stop of itself. It had no self-will. It was an unaccountable being. It was a separate creature, independent of the soul. It was not human thing at all. It was everything that was superhuman. All objects seemed reeling and toppling on towards it, like the foam-bells upon a mighty current, floating silently on towards the orifice of some prodigious sea-cave. It was like the whirlpool of Maelstrom, everything that comes within the vortex of which, for miles around, is sure of being caught, inextricably involved, whirled round and round and round, and then down that monstrous gulph——that mouth of the mighty ocean, the lips of which are overwhelming waves, whose teeth are prodigious rocks, and whose belly is the great abyss!

Here I grew dizzy, fainted, and …. I never saw the Mouth again.

I have been alerted to this story while reading Brian Maidment’s recent Robert Seymour and Nineteenth-Century Print Culture, Routledge, 2021.

This entry was posted in Edward Lear and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.