My student is writing about John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the story that has provided me with a name for my domicile toward the end of any semester: the Slough of Despond. Bunyan places this swampy stretch just past Pilgrim’s house, and when he takes a notion to cast down his burden of sin and go to the Celestial City his first adventure is to fall into it.
The student’s error is mere word reversal, but oh how charming a reversal it is. Another student last semester wrote of a facility I want to recommend to some certain managing types I’ve known: the Center for Control Disease. But that’s neither here nor there, I suppose. The reason for such transposals is unclear, although I’d surmise that for someone who’s never heard of a Slough or of Despond, or someone who can’t quite picture “disease control,” the word order may not seem to make much difference.
“Slough” is a fascinating word. Prepping for my PhD orals I thought to look up its pronunciation just so that, if asked to comment on Bunyan, I wouldn’t make any truly basic errors. I learned from the venerable Webster that the word has three different pronunciations, and each is attached to a separate meaning. The “despond” one rhymes with “cow.”
That discovery drove me to drop everything (this has always been how I deal with important approaching deadlines) and write a poem about spelling, which you may read here if you’re curious.
Desperately proud of myself, I showed the ditty to the then department chair, Prof. George H. Ford. He chuckled, and then commented that it made him think of “that poem, ‘fall friendly bomb….'”
For the complete text of THAT poem, and a description of the British city bombed (like other British cities) during World War II and immortalized in Sir John Betjeman’s perky verses, click over to the inevitable Wikipedia. It begins
- Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!
- It isn’t fit for humans now,
- There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
- Swarm over, Death!
I guess I’m not the only person who deals with impending disaster by writing about Sloughs. Betjeman’s description of the place actually makes me think there might be a spot there that the locals call the Despond of Slough. Big tourist attraction? And evidently the poem threw said locals into despond, for which he later expressed regret.
Well, go forth, pilgrim. Do not fall into the Slough of Despond, or enter the Despond of Slough either.