Today’s word of the day arrives as I am rereading John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress:
I do not always find the Word of the Day terribly enlightening, in part because Merriam-Webster only gives a brief etymology. And it is the stories within the word that I love to learn about.
However, this word fascinates me because of its resonance rather than its history as a word. It immediately evokes for me John Bunyan‘s allegory of Christian life, The Pilgrim’s Progress. While I struggle to find sympathy with this strange book, for various reasons I find myself coming back to it again and again. One of those reasons is that I played the Pilgrim, Christian, in an undergraduate musical rendition of The Pilgrim’s Progress, called “The Upward Way.” In a fashion that is more intimate than metaphor alone, the Pilgrim’s tale is in some ways inside of me.
In seeing today’s Word of the Day, “slough,” I could not help but think of Pilgrim’s struggle in the “Slough of Despond.” I remember the debate we had about pronouncing that word in the stage production. Peeking at a revised version of the M-W entry will show why:
pronunciation: slau̇; in the US (except in New England) ˈslü is usual for sense 1 with those to whom the sense is familiar; British usually ˈslau̇ for both senses
1a: a place of deep mud or mire; b or less commonly slew or slue \ ˈslü \ 1) swamp; 2) an inlet on a river, backwater; 3) a creek in a marsh or tide flat; 2: a state of moral degradation or spiritual dejection
definition (when pronounced as above): to engulf in a slough; to plod through or as if through mud (or “slog” through )
definition (when pronounced as ˈsləf , sometimes spelled “sluff”): 1: the cast-off skin of a snake; 2: a mass of dead tissue separating from an ulcer; 3: something that may be shed or cast off
definition (when pronounced as ˈsləf , sometimes spelled “sluff”): 1a: to become shed or cast off; b: to cast off one’s skin; c: to separate in the form of dead tissue from living tissue; 2: to crumble slowly and fall away; 3: to cast off; 4a: to get rid of or discard as irksome, objectionable, or disadvantageous —usually used with off; b: to dispose of (a losing card in bridge) by discarding
When I encountered the “Slough of Despond” in my script, I immediately said “sluff”–a fairly common word in my growing-up spaces. As a dairy farm kid, behind the milk barn there was a “Slough” of something much more fragrant than the average pond or bog, but no less miry than Despond, which becomes Christian’s trap in the allegory. If we were to have called our manure pit a “Slough” we would have called it a “sloo.” However, “Slough of Shit” really lacks something of Bunyan’s poetry even as it excels in technical specificity. “Manure pit” seemed to do all that was needed on our little farm.
In that theatre read-through all those years ago, my “sluff” pronunciation got a chuckle: what did I intend to slough off? I was asked. I pivoted quickly, but my “sloo” pronunciation created a debate. “No,” someone said, “it’s pronounced ‘slow,’ like ‘cow.” I know about cows and the sloughs that they create, but that pronunciation clanged in my ear.
Had we the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day, no doubt we would have been able to answer the question directly. For our performances in Atlantic Canada and the Northeast US, “Sloo of Despond” would work, whereas “Slow of Despond” would be the word in our other American shows.
I can’t remember how it all worked out. I doubt that I could have changed my pronunciation partway into a tour, in any case. I now suspect that Bunyan’s pronunciation may have been closer to “slow,” but I don’t know for certain.
What the Word of the Day did for me was to cause me to pause in my reading, giving me a new depth of understanding about the Slough named Despond. Here is the place where Christian and Pliable, walking together, fall into the Slough:
PLIABLE. Well, my good companion, glad am I to hear of these things: come on, let us mend our pace.
CHRISTIAN. I cannot go as fast as I would, by reason of this burden that is on my back.
Now I saw in my dream, that just as they had ended this talk, they drew nigh to a very miry slough that was in the midst of the plain: and they being heedless, did both fall suddenly into the bog. The name of the slough was Despond. Here, therefore, they wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with the dirt; and Christian, because of the burden that was on his back, began to sink in the mire.
PLI. Then said Pliable, Ah, neighbour Christian, where are you now?
CHR. Truly, said Christian, I do not know.
PLI. At this Pliable began to be offended, and angrily said to his fellow, Is this the happiness you have told me all this while of? If we have such ill speed at our first setting out, what may we expect between this and our journey’s end? May I get out again with my life, you shall possess the brave country alone for me. And with that he gave a desperate struggle or two, and got out of the mire on that side of the slough which was next to his own house: so away he went, and Christian saw him no more.
Wherefore Christian was left to tumble in the Slough of Despond alone; but still he endeavoured to struggle to that side of the slough that was farthest from his own house, and next to the wicket-gate; the which he did, but could not get out because of the burden that was upon his back: but I beheld in my dream, that a man came to him, whose name was Help, and asked him what he did there.
CHR. Sir, said Christian, I was bid to go this way by a man called Evangelist, who directed me also to yonder gate, that I might escape the wrath to come. And as I was going thither, I fell in here.
HELP. But why did not you look for the steps?
CHR. Fear followed me so hard that I fled the next way, and fell in.
HELP. Then, said he, Give me thine hand: so he gave him his hand, and he drew him out, Psalm 40:2, and he set him upon sound ground, and bid him go on his way.
Then I stepped to him that plucked him out, and said, “Sir, wherefore, since over this place is the way from the city of Destruction to yonder gate, is it, that this plat is not mended, that poor travellers might go thither with more security?” And he said unto me, “This miry slough is such a place as cannot be mended: it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore it is called the Slough of Despond; for still, as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there arise in his soul many fears and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place: and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.
“It is not the pleasure of the King that this place should remain so bad. Isa. 35:3,4. His labourers also have, by the direction of his Majesty’s surveyors, been for above this sixteen hundred years employed about this patch of ground, if perhaps it might have been mended: yea, and to my knowledge,” said he, “there have been swallowed up at least twenty thousand cart loads, yea, millions of wholesome instructions, that have at all seasons been brought from all places of the King’s dominions, (and they that can tell, say, they are the best materials to make good ground of the place,) if so be it might have been mended; but it is the Slough of Despond still, and so will be when they have done what they can.
In all these years of reading and rereading this text–and bringing it into my story on the stage or in teaching or reading stories about the story–I have missed an aspect of the Slough of Despond, despite it being one of the more personally resonant parts of the story. Today, though, the Word of the Day came as I am reading about Christiana in the “Second Part,” and I laughed about “sluff” and “sloo” and “slow” as I came upon these words again text. But then I stopped up short and reread the passage. It speaks about Christian’s experience of being mired in Despond while his wife Christiana walks on by. In discussing another’s experience, Mr. Fearing’s, though, I read the phrase, “a Slough of Despond in his mind.” Then I kept reading:
He had, I think, a Slough of Despond in his mind, a slough that he carried everywhere with him; or else he could never have been as he was. So he came up to the gate–you know what I mean–that stands at the head of this way; and there also he stood a good while before he would adventure to knock. When the gate was opened, he would give back; and give place to others, and say that he was not worthy. For, for all he got before some to the gate, yet many of them went in before him. There the poor man would stand shaking and shrinking; I dare say it would have pitied one’s heart to have seen him; nor would he go back again. At last he took the hammer that hanged on the gate in his hand, and gave a small rap or two; then one opened to him, but he shrunk back as before. He that opened stept out after him, and said, “Thou trembling one, what wantest thou?” With that he fell down to the ground. He that spoke to him wondered to see him so faint. So he said to him, ‘Peace be to thee; up, for I have set open the door to thee; come in, for thou art blest.’ With that he got up, and went in trembling; and when he was in, he was ashamed to show his face.
In thinking about the Slough of Despond, I think I had always thought of it merely as “sin”–sin that mires us on the way, a kind of boggish intimation of Dante‘s frozen underworld. What strikes me in rereading today is that Despond (as the name suggests) is the psychological reality of sin–the fear it creates in us, the shaking and shrinking, the heart-worry that mires us on the upward way. In my heart, that experience manifests as shame and doubt and creeping fear.
But it is a more specific Slough than just the psychological consequence of sin itself. We see how “sin will find you out” becomes a theme in great works, perhaps best pictured in Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment or Anna in Tolstoy’s novel–which, by the way, I think that Lewis is evoking in the ghosts of The Great Divorce or Weston in Perelandra or a character like Nikabrik in Prince Caspian–but more complex in the character of Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter, or in Eustace’s story in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It is not accidental that “Draco” is a name that evokes “dragon.”
Rather, this Slough of Despond is a result of the spiritual awakening to sin within us, not merely the sin itself. It is the whole collection of “the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin,” for “as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there arise in his soul many fears and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place….”
This is a striking spiritual discovery for my reading of this tale–and my walking in the world with the pilgrim within me.
Four connected points are worth noting.
First, in an intriguing piece of apologetics within the world-building itself, the Slough of Despond is not made by the King of that land, but is a natural feature in that world–the “run-off”, the sludge, the dross-heap, the tailings pond of awakened sin that works industriously within the people of that land. It is their “Manure Pit” of the mind, the “Slough of Shit” that is refuse of spirituality in progress. All the good earth in the country is not enough to reclaim the land as a soil-bed for fruit-bearing plants.
I don’t know if in Bunyan’s speculative world it is possible to compost the Slough of Despond to enrich the land–like we did on the farm, or like what happens with the character of the man with a lizard (a kind of dragon, one might say) in The Great Divorce.
Second, note that Pliable is able to get away while Christian remains mired in clay. Are we to presume that there is a kind of spiritual liberation in being ignorant of our spiritual state? Christian gains his burden, his awakening to his sinful condition, from his encounter with the story of salvation. Leaving it behind as false hope and a path too hard, Pliable easily walks away.
Third, the idea of a “Slough of Despond in his mind, a slough that he carried everywhere with him” is a terrible break in the allegory. After all, what else is this if not a story that we carry around with us in spiritual life? However, it is a poignant reminder for careless readers (like me) who miss the message in Christian’s tale and need a sequel for it to do its work.
Finally, Christian makes it out of the Slough of Despond, but still has a burden he carries–the very burden that weighted him down within the mire. Eventually, though, he is able to cast off his burden. In a beautiful synchronicity of language, in teaching the text a couple of weeks ago, I said, “And Christian sloughed off his burden….”
So Christian sluffed off his burden–the burden that threatened to drown him in the sloo/slow of Despond. Today’s Word of the Day did its work.