“Some in their passage through this elementary world find their way strewed with roses, and their paths spread with butter, others . . . stick fast in the muddy sloughs of trouble . . .”
Robert Baron, An Apology for Paris (1649)
You may suppose that footing would be uncertain on a path spread with butter, but this old idiom denoted a life of luxury, and was no doubt adapted from the verse in which Job remembered those happier days, “when I washed my steps with butter, and the rock poured me out rivers of oil” (29:6). As Job and many others have discovered, the buttery path is not a long path (1). Or, as an old nursery rhyme said of Billy Pringle’s pig:
When alive it lived in clover,
Now it’s dead, and that’s all over.
The path that is strewed with roses is likewise short, for it is, of course, the tempting road to Hell. Shakespeare famously described one lane of this broad highway as “the primrose path of dalliance.”
But I am not, today, interested in paths that are lathered in butter or strewn with roses. I am interested in paths that are encumbered by what my epigram describes as muddy sloughs of trouble. The phrase “muddy slough” is, in fact, redundant, for the Anglo Saxon slōh means a muddy place. This sticky bane of the traveler was also known to our wayfaring (and no doubt cursing) forebears as a slōg. Thus, when you slog through some turgid text or tedious task, you are pushing your way through the mud of a metaphorical slough.
If we revert to those long-ago days, we find that one old manuscript (A.D. 708) locates the lair of Grendel, nemesis of Beowulf, in a pit between a willow-mere, a black pool, and a quagmire it calls the red slōh. All of these features lay in the valley of Piddle Brook, near Abbots Morton, in Worcestershire, and that red slōh was very likely a patch of soupy red clay that had been churned by slogging feet and hooves.
There are many such references to grendeles pyt in the land charters of Saxon England, so a swamp monster was by no means unique to the legend of Beowulf. These monsters were all called Grendel, either because it was their wont to grind (oppress) those who dwelt in the neighborhood of a grendeles pyt, or because such a pit lay at the bottom of dark and stagnant pools (on the mere-grund).
A slough is, strictly, an undrained hollow in which runoff collects, and where that runoff remains ponded until it at last evaporates. After the snowmelt or when rains are especially heavy, a slough can swell into a pond, but this inundation is temporary. Under a drought, a slough will dwindle and contract into a puddle, and then into a mere “mud hole.”
This term “mud hole” was, incidentally, an invention of the nineteenth century, has a meaning identical to the ancient slōh, and seems to have largely supplanted that venerable word. Its first literary appearance may well have been in Stephen Foster’s Camptown Races (1850).
“De blind horse sticken in a big mud hole
Can’t touch bottom wid a ten-foot poll
On the Great Plains, the word slough came to mean a “wet meadow.” Such a meadow might swell into an ephemeral lake or river when the season was wet, but it was at other times a mere patch of lush grass and soggy ground. If you have read the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, you will recall her Pa harvesting wild hay by one such slough on the prairie in Dakota Territory. In California, the name was applied to channels that thread the marshes at the mouth of the Sacramento River.
Here in Texas, the name of slough can be applied to anything from a mud hole to a lake in the floodplain of a river. These lakes are simply very deep “holes” in abandoned river channels. They are periodically replenished by local runoff or overflow from the flooding river, but are otherwise stagnant and slowly evaporating pools. A mud hole is simply what remains when a hole that is not so deep goes dry.
It does not require much imagination to wonder if Grendel might repose on the bed of one of these slack lakes, or if he might at times heave himself onto the slimy shore and grind the neighborhood. Here, for instance is, Devil’s Lake, a slough that occupies an abandoned channel of the nearby Navasota River.
The name, now all but forgotten, appears in a newspaper article from 1870, and was likely given because young people in those days “raised hell” by Devil’s Lake.
Or maybe someone spotted the shape of Grendel creeping from the slime. I have walked beside this lonely slough late at night, and there were some very queer noises to be heard.
The greatest slough in Western literature is certainly the Slough of Despond in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). It is into this slough that Christian falls on the first day of his flight from the City of Destruction. While laboring under a profound impression of sin, Christian had been directed by Evangelist to cross “a very wide field” and knock at the “wicket gate” that stands at the other side. Midway across that field, Christian slips into “a very miry slough,” there wallows and nearly drowns, and is “grievously bedaubed with dirt.”
Anyone who loses his footing on the banks of Devil’s Lake can expect to be likewise grievously bedaubed.
Although Bunyan was writing an allegory, he chose the image of a slough with care, for his theological point hangs on a strict definition of a slough as an undrained depression in which runoff collects. When Help comes to Christian’s rescue, he explains that this depression “is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run.” This “scum and filth” is not sin itself, but the appalling self-reproach and disgust that attend a first conviction of sin.
To recollect a sordid past is to be “grievously bedaubed with dirt.” Guilty memories collect in the Slough of Despond just as runoff collects in Devil’s Lake, and to wallow in the Slough of Despond is therefore to recollect the evil one has done.
Bunyan also chose the name of this slough with care, for to despond is to lose hope. The word was new to English when Bunyan was writing, but its literal meaning from the Latin is to remove (de) a promise (spondere). Thus, a sinner like Christian responds to the promise of salvation by setting out apace for the wicker gate, but he very shortly desponds because he recollects all of the sins of his former life. He is overwhelmed by a sense that he is unworthy of the promise, and feels that the promise has been withdrawn. The pilgrim’s progress is thus arrested because he is stuck in the mud of remorse, mired and and wallowing in the aweful Slough of Despond.
Interestingly, when Help arrived, he tells Christian that, “it is not the pleasure of the King that this place should remain so bad,” but that even “twenty thousand cartloads” of fill have not sufficed to lay a causeway over the terrible Slough. There are some safe steps by which the slough can be crossed, but these are so often sunk by torrents of scum and filth, and are otherwise so dangerously slippery, that few go by that way. Most wallow, appalled and helpless, in a very sticky dark night of the soul.
“If he lead thee thorough deep sloughs, and brakie thickets; know, that he knows this the nearer way, though more cumbersome.”
Joseph Hall, Works (1625)
(1) “We have wearied ourselves in the ways of wickedness, when our paths were spread with butter.” Robert Abbott, The Young Man’s Warning Piece (1639).