Far from madding

Out of ones mind

Mad came into English in the 13th Century from the Old English word, gemædde, meaning out of one’s mind often with violent excitement. It also meant foolish and extremely stupid or excited beyond self-control or the restraint of reason.

Mad as a March hare is an expression that relates the behaviour to the strange antics of hares during the mating season. Mad as a hatter refers to the modified behaviour of hatters. It was due to their long exposure to the poisonous mercuric nitrate that was used in making felt hats. Lewis Carol had them both meeting Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. The post illustration is modified from the original by Sir John Tenniel who illustrated the Alice in Wonderland books. He was a well-known English illustrator and political cartoonist for Punch magazine.

Mad also came to mean being beside oneself with anger. However this meaning has lessened in British English as it was wrongly perceived to be an Americanism (which it has now become). It is synonymous with being very angry in the US and in Australia.

Expressions of anger

Expressions of anger from the US include: mad as a wet hen because, apparently, hens get very upset when they are wet (not like ducks); and mad as a hornet as they are very, very angry when provoked. Australia has as mad as a cut snake, which surely needs no explanation.

Maddening is the modern word to make mad but the older word, madding, survives in the phrase far from the madding crowd (sometimes this preservation of an old word in a current expression is known as fossilisation).

Madding in poetry

The phrase’s preservation is due to Thomas Hardy’s use of as a title of one of his most successful novels (1874). He took the title from a line of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1749):

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.

Thomas Gray, himself, was probably referencing earlier pastoral poetry works. He is echoing a line from a sonnet by William Drummond of Hawthornden (1614):

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

This may, again, refer to Edmund Spenser’s poem (1579):

But now from me hys madding mynd is starte,

And woes the Widdowes daughter of the glenne.

So we must do our best to keep madding from becoming extinct since it has been preserved down the generations by our poets.