meaning and origin of ‘the Slough of Despond’



John Bunyan drew on his knowledge of the Bedfordshire landscape for The Pilgrim’s Progress. […]
The country round Ampthill, in Bedfordshire, where John Bunyan dreamed his famous dream and turned it into The Pilgrim’s Progress, is full of signs and symbols […].
If Bunyan were to rise today from his grave in Bunhill Fields and take a trip back to the City of Destruction—Bedford, where he was twice imprisoned for dissent […]—he would recognise much. There are brick-and-timber houses that were standing when he was born in 1628, and the same rich-red local bricks in other houses built long after. He would still see the water meadows of the river Ouse (suggested as the original location of the Slough of Despond) and also the wooded stream of the Flit to the south—for him, the River of Life.

motte of Cainhoe Castle - Illustrated London News - Christmas 1993

The motte of Cainhoe Castle, which already was derelict and its adjoining village deserted 300 years before Bunyan’s time, as a result of the Black Death. As Doubting Castle, it was the scene of Christian’s and Hopeful’s incarceration by Giant Despair.

from Bunyan’s Way, by Gillian Tindall – The Illustrated London News – Christmas 1993





the Slough of Despond: a state of extreme despondency, depression or degradation




In The Pilgrim’s Progress from this World, to That which is to come Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream Wherein is Discovered, The Manner of his setting out, His Dangerous Journey, and Safe Arrival at the Desired Countrey (London, 1678), John Bunyan (1628-88), English writer and Baptist preacher, dreams of a figure, called Christian, who journeys to the Celestial City and encounters various people and places symbolising aspects of human and spiritual life. At the beginning of his journey, he and one of his neighbours, Pliable, go through a deep bog called the Slough of Despond, a place of fears, doubts and discouragements into which Christian sinks “because of the burden that [is] on his back”, that is, his sins and sense of guilt for them:

– Pliable: Come Neighbour Christian, since there is none but us two here, tell me now further, what the things are, and how to be enjoyed, whither we are going?
– Christian: There is an endless Kingdom to be Inhabited, and everlasting life to be given us; that we may Inhabit that Kingdom for ever.
There shall be no more crying, nor sorrow; For he that is owner of the places, will wipe all tears from our eyes.
– Pliable: Well, my good Companion, glad am I to hear of these things: Come on, let us mend our pace.
– Christian: I cannot go so fast as I would, by reason of this burden that is upon my back.
Now I saw in my Dream, that just as they had ended this talk, they drew near to a very Miry Slough, that was in the midst of the Plain, and they being heedless, did both fall suddenly into the bogg. The name of the Slow was Dispond. Here therefore they wallowed, for a time, being grieviously bedaubed with the dirt; And Christian, because of the burden that was on his back, began to sink in the Mire.

The archaic noun despond means despondency; it is from the verb to despond, itself from the Latin despondere, earlier despondere animumto lose courageto despair, despond.

The noun slough, said to be ultimately cognate with the German verb schlingento swallow up, used to be a common word for a bog or stretch of muddy ground, and this is its literal meaning in the story; but it was already a metaphor for a state or condition, especially of moral degradation, in which a person sinks or has sunk. For example, in Address to Sir John Oldcastle (1415), Thomas Hoccleve (circa 1367-1426), English poet and clerk, thus speaks to the English Lollard leader John Oldcastle, who was executed in 1417:

Ryse vp, a manly knyght, out of the slow
Of heresie o lurker as a wrecche
Wher as thow erred haast correcte it now!
By humblesse thow mayst to mercy strecche.
     adaptation in contemporary English:
Rise up a manly knight out of the slough of heresy.  Where you have lurked and erred as a wretch, correct it now!  You may reach for mercy through humility.

One of the earliest uses of the Slough of Despond in its current sense is in a letter that the Reverend Thomas Twining (1735-1804), English scholar and Rector of St. Mary’s, Colchester, wrote on 27th January 1776 to Dr. Burney:

(1882 edition)
There is something so solemn and frightful in this long silence that I can endure it no longer […]. I remember slumping all on a sudden into the slough of despond, and closing my letter in the dumps. I meet with these accidents now and then, but, thank God, I soon work myself out again.

In the second series of Tales of my Landlord (Edinburgh, 1818), by the Scottish poet and novelist Walter Scott (1771-1832), Hardie, a young lawyer, tells

one of those tales which seem to argue a sort of ill luck or fatality attached to the hero. A well-informed, industrious, and blameless, but poor and bashful man, had in vain essayed all the usual means by which others acquire independence, yet had never succeeded beyond the attainment of bare subsistence. During a brief gleam of hope, rather than of actual prosperity, he had added a wife and family to his cares, but the dawn was speedily overcast. Every thing retrograded with him towards the verge of the miry Slough of Despond, which yawns for insolvent debtors; and after catching at each twig, and experiencing the protracted agony of feeling them one by one elude his grasp, he actually sunk into the miry pit [i.e. prison] whence he had been extricated by the professional exertions of Hardie.

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