That was Henry James assessment of Kipling. It is not, as you can imagine, our view or that of Roger Kimball:
How different it once was. Around the turn of the last century, at the apogee of Kipling’s fame, Mark Twain wrote that he was “the only living person not head of a nation, whose voice is heard around the world the moment it drops a remark, the only such voice in existence that does not go by slow ship and rail but always travels first-class by cable.” In Kipling, the zeitgeist briefly found its impresario. For a time, his authority was as much political as literary. Kipling gave speeches advocating British supremacy in India and South Africa. He opposed the suffragettes and home rule for Ireland. He could be downright strident. It was Kipling, one of his biographers speculates, who popularized the metonymy “Huns” (actually, he insisted on “huns” with a small “h”) for “Germans,” a subject on which he grew increasingly ferocious. By 1915, Kipling was insisting that there were “only two divisions in the world … human beings and Germans.” Kipling consistently refused state honors (a knighthood, the Order of Merit, the post of poet laureate) but by the late 1890s he was the undisputed if unofficial laureate—but also, which is sometimes forgotten, the Jeremiah—of Imperial Britain.
But then he fell, fast and hard. In the span of a few years he went from acclaimed genius, the youngest literary nobel laureate then or since, to being the very personification of camp and bigotry. It was not, as I've noted in this space before, for Kipling's faults that he was, and still is, despised. He is hated for his virtues.
Imperialism became an epithet in the early twentieth century because, according to Lenin, it was the highest form of capitalism. Apologists of empire were, therefore, running dog lackeys of the bourgeoisie, slowing down historical inevitability. Capitalism and imperialism are not necessary corollaries, the latter predates the former by millennia. So far as the early European empires had any ideological rationale, it came from mercantilism, not the laissez-faire capitalism that replaced it. In the 1860s, at the very height of classical liberalism's influence on British policy, there were serious discussions about simply getting rid of the Empire, including Canada. Capitalism leading to imperialism was pure myth, but a Leninist myth that gained wide currency among communists, their fellow travellers, and a long train of useful idiots.
Kipling was one of communism's first intellectual victims in the West. But the hatred of Kipling was more than political, it was visceral. The Left of the middle decades of the last century hated his politics, but it was his sense of life that they found truly repulsive. He was not a good intellectual, because he did not celebrate the educated elite, and their struggles with middle class morality. The engineer, the businessman, the solider, and the ordinary, practically minded man in the street, were feted by Kipling. They were his people. The doers and makers, however humble. He could find the grandest nobility in a water bearer. Very little among the aesthetes.
Such common nobility was an affront to modern intellectuals. Ordinary people were suppose to be weak and foolish, needing to be ruled over. The intellectuals were to be the rulers and guiders. There can be only one noble class in a nation, and Kipling found his in the barrack rooms, not the salons.
He committed three unpardonable sins. First, he was an imperialist at the wrong moment in history, second he despised intellectuals (not as a type, but as a class) and third because he was so competent. Being told you don't matter is one thing, being told you don't matter by a master of the language is something else. Kipling rhythms and scans. It is poetry as most would have recognized it before the twentieth century. It was definitely not modern. Kimball quotes, a mostly well intentioned review, of Kipling by T.S. Elliot. The modern master criticizes the author of If and The Gods of the Copybook Headings for having “excessive lucidity.” A problem which does not, in anyway, afflict either modern poets or intellectuals.