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THIS is British bandit country. As a popular historian and social critic, Carlyle wrote about heroes, myth and - wait for it - race. In the previous paragraph he mentions that the Nottinghamshire dialect word "eager" - it means a dangerous swirl in a river - derives from the Norse god Aegir. Then he adds that "our English blood in good part is Danish, Norse."

Carlyle was aggressively Scottish, but as he was addressing a London audience he became English, and though he later came to distrust his own mixture of "prophecy and play-acting" we needn't let him off too easily. Anyone looking at this once hugely influential figure is bound to distrust the simple-minded sentences clanging out on the anvil of his calvinist conscience. Could any critic write like this nowadays? Would anyone want to?

It seems unlikely. Carlyle died in 1881, but he inspired many artists including D H Lawrence who was caught in his native Nottinghamshire by Aegir's frightening pull (and who praised his mother, in a recently discovered poem, for looking like a Viking). But since Lawrence's death in 1930 there has been a vacancy for the critic as prophet. Q D Leavis and F R Leavis both tried at times to make comments about society, but their vinegary aspersions are embarrassing. And the litist jargon of literary theory disdains social relevance.

But Lawrence and Herman Melville, Ruskin, Yeats and George Eliot heard Carlyle's preachy voice and were inspired by its thunders, its moments of intense inspiration. This is a prose which aims to free its hearers by offering a kind of surrogate epic poetry. This is the whale-road that is hymned in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and it speaks to the cultural memory of a great seafaring and manufacturing nation.

Reading Carlyle in the 1990s - does anyone? - we realise that this was the man who invented the vital importance of being really earnest. He insisted so much on that Victorian quality that he began to sound camp. But his primitivism - a bracing primal vision before industrialisation - survives in the work of the present poet laureate. Here is Ted Hughes on thistles:

Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing

hands of men

Thistles spike the summer air

Or crackle open under a blue-black pressure

Every one a revengeful burst

Of ressurection, a grasped fistful

Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking

And when he says that each thistle "manages a plume of blood", we again catch a faint echo of Carlyle on English blood. This is how a critic can influence a writer and seed new beautifully fricative poems out of ancient declamations.

Reading Carlyle is like listening to Yeats on dark Rosaleen: this interest in folklore and natural magic is really a form of nationalism. Hearing that ominous drum, I glimpse the sheen of arms in Ulster again and feel frightened. When Enoch Powell made his filthy "rivers of blood" speech in 1968, he donned the Carlylean mantle; Goebbels read Carlyle's gigantic biography of Frederick the Great while the Third Reich crumbled. I want to consign this kind of critical prose to oblivion. But something stops me. There is a quality I hold onto, a great rude sincerity that confronts the reader like a streetfighter and says "Here I am, take me on." But as Concepta was telling McMoon as we drove to Derry last week, "This is wind and presbyterian piss. A troubled masculinity that just raves on and on. Would you forget it?"

Next week: Solid sentimentality

OF the chief god, Odin, we shall speak by and by. Mark at present so much; what the essence of Scandinavian and indeed all Paganism is: a recognition of the forces of Nature and godlike, stupendous, personal Agencies, - as Gods and Demons. Not inconceivable to us. It is the infant Thought of man opening itself, with awe and wonder, on this ever-stupendous Universe. To me there is in the Norse System something very genuine, very great and manlike. ... It is Thought: the genuine Thought of deep, rude, earnest minds, fairly opened to the things about them ... Not graceful lightness, half-sport, as in the Greek Paganism ...

Thomas Carlyle: `Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History' (1841)