Far From the Madding Crowd was Thomas Hardy’s fourth novel (written in 1874), but it was his first literary success, and it has been adapted into two notable movies — starring Julie Christie and Carey Mulligan respectively as the farmer heroine Bathsheba Everdene who is being courted by three men in England’s rustic Wessex. But as well as giving us what some people think of as one of the greatest love stories in English literature, Hardy’s novel has left a slightly more esoteric legacy, with its title living on in our language and keeping an otherwise extinct word alive. “Far from the madding crowd” still crops up in colloquial, promotional and sometimes literary prose as a poetic expression that means — when describing a place — “secluded and removed from public notice”, as the Oxford English Dictionary acknowledges with a hat-tip to Hardy’s novel.
Hardy took his evocative title from Thomas Gray’s poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, written in 1751 as a meditation on death and remembrance. “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife, Their sober wishes never learned to stray.”
The adjective madding is the present participle of the now obsolete verb mad, “to make insane, to become insane” (i.e. “she is madding”, “they are madding”), which was the forerunner of our modern verb “to madden”. Now more or less obsolete itself, except when it’s used in the Hardy-inspired phrase, madding is defined as “becoming mad [in the British-English rather than Am-Eng sense of mad], acting madly, or frenzied” (OED).
Its literary lineage is fine: Gray’s words echo those from a sonnet by the Scottish poet William Drummond of Hawthornden in about 1614: ”Farre from the madding Worldling’s hoarse discords”; Drummond might have read Edmund Spenser’s “But now from me hys madding mind is starte/ And woes the Widdows daughter of the glenne” (1579). Madding also appears later in John Milton’s most famous work, Paradise Lost, published in 1667: ”the madding wheels / Of brazen chariots raged.” (vi. 210)
In a book called The Poetical Works of Thomas Gray, published in 1903, its editor John Bradshaw argues that “‘maddening’ would be the more correct formation; but Gray’s use of madding has given it currency, and ”Far from the Madding Crowd” has been adopted as the title of a novel [Hardy’s].” Duncan C. Tovey, writing about Gray’s poetry in 1922, cites his use of madding in another of his poems, Agrippina: “the madding ear of rage.” However, Tovey suggests that the meaning might well have shifted slightly in the 17th century, arguing that “It may be questioned whether either Drummond or Gray used the word exactly in the sense of ‘maddening.’ It seems with them to mean ‘frenzied’.” And that’s indeed how we understand the madding crowd from which we often seek to travel far to this day.
“Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.”
— from Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray
“Thus ever grave and undisturbed reflection
Pours its cool dictates in the madding ear
Of rage, and thinks to quench the fire it feels not.”
— from Agrippina by Thomas Gray
“What sweet delight a quiet life affords,
And what it is to be of bondage free,
Far from the madding worldling’s hoarse discords,
Sweet flowery place, I first did learn of thee:”
— from a sonnet by William Drummond ‘of Hawthornden’
“arms on armour clashing brayed
Horrible discord, and the madding wheels
Of brazen chariots raged.”
— from Paradise Lost by John Milton