Every man’s speech and habit of mind were a perpetual showing: now of Napier’s expedition, now of the Legions at the Wall, now of ‘train-band captain’, now of Jack Cade, of John Ball, of the commons in arms. Now of High Germany, of Dolly Gray, of Bullcalf, Wart and Poins; of Jingo largenesses, of things as small as the Kingdom of Elmet; of Wellington’s raw shire recruits, of ancient border antipathies, of our contemporary, less intimate, larger unities, of John Barleycorn, of ‘sweet Sally Frampton’. Now of Coel Hên—of the Celtic cycle that lies, a subterranean influence as a deep water troubling, under every tump in this Island, like Merlin complaining under his big rock.
I remember the first time I read this, years ago, I was completely flummoxed; now, with the internet and Google, it reveals most of its secrets within seconds. “High Germany” turns out to be a song from the European wars of the 18th century, and “Goodbye Dolly Gray” a song from the turn of the 20th. And the Kingdom of Elmet? Ah, therein lies a bit of Languagehattery. Elmet was a Celtic holdout in what is now the southern part of Yorkshire, around Leeds; when it was overrun by the Angles in the early seventh century, the way was clear for further Germanic expansion and the creation of the kingdom of Northumbria. But before that, probably in the last years of the sixth century, it had sent a band of warriors to Eidyn (Edinburgh) to accompany the men of Gododdin on a last-ditch expedition to push back the Germanic invaders, which came to grief at Catraeth (probably Catterick in northern Yorkshire). The epic Y Gododdin, considered the earliest poem in Welsh and the oldest Scottish poem, eulogizes the heroes of that doomed expedition, including Madog of the small kingdom… except it’s called Elfed (pronounced EL-ved). Why? Because of one of the features of the Celtic languages, the lenition of intervocalic [m] to [β̃], which became /v/ (written f) in Welsh.
The Wikipedia article on Elmet mentions “an acclaimed 1979 book combining photography and poetry; Remains of Elmet, by Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin… re-published by Faber in 1994 simply titled Elmet, and with a third of the book being new additional poems and photographs.” I’ll have to look for it.