My current focus on WWI is leading me to revisit David Jones’ wonderful In Parenthesis (review), whose preface includes this dizzying parade of allusions:

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.


  1. Amazon’s got it – both editions. Well worth owning.

  2. I only have the book in Hughes’s “Collected Poems”, sadly without the photographs. Here’s an extract from the preface to the 1994 edition of “Elmet”:
    “Elmet is still the name on maps for a part of West Yorkshire that includes the deep valley of the upper Calder and its watershed of Pennine moorland. These poems confine themselves to the upper Calder and the territory roughly encircled by a line drawn through Halifax (on the east), Keighley (on the north-east), Colne (on the north-west), Burnley (on the west), and Littleborough (on the south-west); an ‘island’ straddling the Yorks-Lanc border, though mainly in Yorkshire, and centred, in my mind, on Heptonstall. Elmet was the last independent Celtic kingdom in England and originally stretched out over the vale of York. I imagine it shrank back into the gorge of the upper Calder under historic pressures, before the Celtic survivors were politically absorbed into England. But even into the seventeenth century this narrow cleft and its side-ginnels, under the glaciated moors, were still a ‘badlands’, a sanctuary for refugees from the law. Defoe hid in Halifax to escape his creditors. In those days Halifax was a small country town, and the main stronghold, further up the valley, was Heptonstall. An old rhyme takes note of one aspect of the early shift of power:
    Halifax is made of wax,
    Heptonstall of stone.
    Halifax has many pretty girls,
    Heptonstall has none.
    Heptonstall is now a straggly hill-top hamlet.”
    There’s a lot more, including a reference to one of Thomas Jefferson’s ancestors coming from the region and events in the English Civil War there having an influence on the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Maybe I’ll post it later if I have time.

  3. the earliest poem in Welsh and the oldest Scottish poem
    Scottish in the same way that Gilgamesh is an Iraqi epic? 😉

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  5. J. Cassian: Thanks for the Quote!
    Nic: Heh. Here’s what Kenneth Jackson has to say on the subject:
    “Lastly, what is meant by calling the Gododdin ‘the oldest Scottish poem’? Is it not a Welsh poem? Certainly it exists in a manuscript written in Wales, in the Welsh language, in a Welsh library. At the same time, scholars are nowadays [1969] for the most part agreed that it or its nucleus must have been composed in Scotland, very likely in Edinburgh, in the northern dialect of Brittonic spoken in that region and often called ‘Cumbric’, which, at the date in question, is likely to have differed very little from contemporary Welsh… It is clear, further, that the heroes commemmorated were almost all from Scotland, and there is reason to think that Aneirin, traditionally the author, was so too.”
    For what it’s worth, I’m guessing Iraqis (or those few of them who can care about such things at the moment) do consider Gilgamesh the earliest Iraqi poem; why not? Nations and borders come and go, but art outlives them all.

  6. And don’t forget the Beggar’s Prayer: “From Hell, Hull, and Halifax / Good Lord deliver us”. “Halifax” refers to the Halifax Gibbet, a guillotine used until 1650 to summarily execute “hand-haband”, “back-berand”, or “confessand” thieves of cloth from Halifax market.

  7. Iraqis.. do consider Gilgamesh the earliest Iraqi poem
    You’re right of course, and I realised that as soon as I posted. Bad example. But that doesn’t make Jackson’s “appropriation” any less cheeky, as I think he admits in his introduction. His agenda was to push back the date of birth of “Scottish” literature.
    Things are so more clearer when discussed in Welsh, where Cymraeg is the language, Cymreig is the adjective, and that part of modern day Scotland where Welsh was once spoken is Yr Hen Ogledd (the Old North). Y Gododdin is therefore a cerdd Gymraeg o’r Hen Ogledd (“a Welsh poem from the Old North”), which is rather different to calling it “a Welsh poem from Scotland”.
    God, I’m boring myself now. Why is it that every time I write in English on the web I sound like such a miserable old pedant? I like having fun, honest.
    Beer! Cheese! Ritz crackers!

  8. Cheer up, Nic. You will at least allow that the Book of Kells is (probably) Scottish, I presume?

  9. “You will at least allow that the Book of Kells is (probably) Scottish, I presume?”
    By that loose a defintion of Scotti, Scotland would include that swath of territory from West Virginia to El Paso.

  10. And so it should!
    *founds Greater Scotland Party, plans world domination*

  11. Ian Myles Slater says

    Part of Jackson’s program in the title of “The Gododdin: The Oldest Scottish Poem” (1969) may have been to remind people interested in Scotland that the “Strathclyde Britons” were a (mostly) independent power into the eleventh century, and that their language persisted in Scotland into the High Middle Ages.
    The general impression that the combination of “Scotland” and “Celtic” can only mean “Gaelic” is so pervasive that I have seen successive footnoted identifications of Taliesin or Aneirin as a “Welsh Poet” and “Gaelic poet,” depending on whether there was a mention of Scotland in the same sentence.
    If that was part of his intention, it doesn’t seem to have been very successful.
    A.O.H. Jarman used “Y Gododdin: Britain’s Oldest Heroic Poem” twenty year’s later; which is clearer on all counts.
    (As for the comparison to “Gilgamesh,” I would think more of the status of Mandaean and Syriac in Iraq in recent centuries.)

  12. I’m not kidding about Kells. Wiki says: “The manuscript was never finished. There are at least five competing theories about the manuscript’s place of origin and time of completion. First, the book may have been created entirely at Iona, then brought to Kells and never finished. Second, the book may have been begun at Iona and continued at Kells, but never finished. Third, the manuscript may have been produced entirely in the scriptorium at Kells. Fourth, it may have been produced in the north of England, perhaps at Lindisfarne, then brought to Iona and from there to Kells. Finally, it may have been the product of an unknown monastery in Scotland. Although the question of the exact location of the book’s production will probably never be answered conclusively, the second theory, that it was begun at Iona and finished at Kells, is currently the most widely accepted. Regardless of which theory is true, it is certain that Kells was produced by Columban monks closely associated with the community at Iona.” Shortly I shall explain how all inventions commonly attributed to China are, in fact, Scottish. Or vice versa.

  13. You know, you really have to stop reading such shallow stuff. 😉

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