meaning and origin of ‘far from the madding crowd’

The phrase far from the madding crowd is used in reference to a private or secluded place. It is an allusion to An Elegy wrote in a Country Church Yard (published in 1751), by the English poet Thomas Gray (1716-71).

When he composed this poem, Thomas Gray was living near St Giles’ parish church at Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire. Meditating on death, the poet reflects on the lives of the obscure rustics buried in the churchyard:

Far from the madding Crowd’s ignoble Strife,
Their sober Wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d Vale of Life
They kept the noiseless Tenor of their Way.

The English writer Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) used the beginning of Thomas Gray’s line as the title of his novel, Far from the Madding Crowd, published in 1874.

The adjective madding is from the obsolete verb mad, which, when used transitively (= with a direct object), meant to make mad, to madden, and, when used intransitively, meant to be, or to become, mad, to act madly. In Gray’s elegy, the adjective madding means acting madly, not maddening, but it has often been misunderstood.

Gray used the opposition between madding and cool in Agrippina, a Tragedy (published in 1775, but composed in 1741-42):

Thus ever grave, and undisturb’d reflection
Pours its cool dictates in the madding ear
Of rage, and thinks to quench the fire it feels not.

It is possible that Far from the madding Crowd’s ignoble Strife in Gray’s poem was inspired by a line in a sonnet celebrating the charms of a quiet country life; in or before 1614, the Scottish poet William Drummond ‘of Hawthornden’ (1585-1649) had written:

What sweet Delight a quiet Life affords,
And what it is to bee of Bondage free,
Farre from the madding Worldlings hoarse Discords,
Sweet flowrie Place I first did learne of thee.

Gray’s elegy has provided an enduring epithet for the crowd. The earliest use of madding crowd without reference to his text that I could find is in Thoughts on the past, and Meditations on a New Year, an anonymous poem published in The North Devon Journal of 8th January 1829:

From tumult far, and from ambition’s dream,
May I float down of time the silent stream!
And, when I choose retirement, be allow’d
To quit the noisy town, and madding crowd.

Curiously, this poem had been published in the same newspaper on 12th January 1827 with maddening instead of madding.

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