En: Thomas De Quincey

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Etching and engraving 20 x 15 cm on copperplate by Jens Rusch. Small Portrait Thomas de Quincey, big Portrait Baudelaire.

Thomas De Quincey: The Opium Eater and the Masonic Text

By Dr. David Harrison

Thomas De Quincey was born in Manchester in 1785, the son of a wealthy merchant, and is more famous today as the opium eater of the early nineteenth century, a literary genius who embraced addiction to fuel his creative vision. De Quincey’s much remembered and revered work The Confessions of an Opium Eater would become the zenith of his literary career, though he had been the writer of many articles and essays for The Westmorland Gazette and then The London Magazine, taking a rather right wing stance on political views. However, it was while writing essays for the London Magazine that De Quincey wrote the piece which is of most interest to the Masonic researcher.

His Origin of the Rosicrucians and the Free-Masons was first published in January 1824, a work that examined the origins of these two secret societies. Though no evidence has yet come to light that De Quincey was a Freemason, he was certainly aware of the works of the Swedish visionary Emmanuel Swedenborg, being introduced to his writings and philosophies as a young man by the Rev. John Clowes, a close friend of Thomas’s parents. Swedenborg’s philosophies were implemented by certain Masonic groups which led to the development of the Swedenborg Rite. De Quincey’s future work is littered with references to Swedenborg, and it was another acquaintance of his mother’s that would also provide a glimpse into the free thinking world of the Regency period; Mrs Harriot Lee – the illegitimate daughter of Sir Frances Dashwood, the notorious leading member of the Hell Fire Club – who was invited to dinner at the De Quincey household in Manchester. Mrs Lee was an outspoken atheist, and her outrageous free thinking stance that she displayed during that dinner was to stay with De Quincey throughout his life.1

Aged Seventeen, De Quincey had developed an admiration for the Lakeside poet William Wordsworth, and absconded from Manchester Grammar School with a plan to visit the poet. However, his journey took him first to Chester, where his mother was then residing, then on through Wales and eventually to London, where he lived in poverty for a while. He befriended a young prostitute called Ann, and together they would walk Oxford Street, supporting each other in the cold. De Quincey left London to try and secure a loan from a friend, and planned to return, arranging to meet Ann and start a future together. When he did return, he waited for Ann at the specified rendezvous point, but she never arrived, and De Quincey never saw her again. Ann was to haunt his opium fuelled dreams for years to come, the memory of her meandering into his writings. A recent biographer of De Quincey’s – Grevel Lindop – has put forward that Ann may have been an amalgamation of certain female social outcasts from this period of his life, a Romantic literary creation representing the dispossessed and perhaps his own sense of being an outsider.2

De Quincey finally returned home and entered into Worcester College, Oxford, and it was here that he started using opium for the first time. He left the University without graduating, and after meeting the writer Charles Lamb in London, De Quincey was finally introduced to his hero Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This led to De Quincey moving to Dove Cottage in Grasmere in the Lake District in 1809, a move which opened up his literary career and brought him directly into the circle of the Lakeside poets, though the move also saw his

  • 1 See Grevel Lindop, The Opium Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp.50-51.
  • 2 Ibid, p.89.

opium habit increase. He became a journalist, first for the Westmorland Gazette, then, after returning to London, for the London Magazine, where he began to translate popular German works.

Historico-Critical Inquiry into the Origins of the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons was one of these German works that De Quincey translated, transformed and transmuted into what biographer Grevel Lindop says was seen at the time as a ‘stylish and lucid argument’ concerning the origins of the two Orders.3 However, Lindop puts forward that all De Quincey had done was merely copy the text from the German original – a version of J.G. Buhle’s work dated to 1804 – and after making a hasty summary, effectively passed it off as an original work.4 The work was considered for publication as a book by the publisher, but became an essay in the magazine instead. It was popular nonetheless, and was subsequently published along with his Confessions in various future editions of the book. Despite Lindop’s rather negative analysis of the text, De Quincey does provide an additional element to Buhle’s argument, and puts forward that:

‘Freemasonry is neither more nor less than Rosicrucianism as modified by those who transplanted it to England’.

Robert Fludd was named by De Quincey as being the man behind this ‘transplantation’, and that the Masonic beliefs and practices of the building of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem could be seen in Rosicrucian writings. He went further to add that this Rosicrucian belief system effectively became embedded within the stone mason’s guilds to form Freemasonry as we know it, a theory that has been discussed by many researchers in this field ever since.

  • 5 De Quincey had also become acquainted with the Edinburgh literary scene during his time in the Lake District, meeting the celebrated poet and Freemason James Hogg, who had been considered as the successor to the great Robert Burns.
  • 6 De Quincey had met Hogg – otherwise known as the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’ – as well as J.G. Lockhart, the future biographer of another Masonic literary figure; Sir Walter Scott.

De Quincey would later translate from German the text of Sir Walter Scott’s Walladmor in 1825. It would be in Edinburgh that the infamous Opium Eater would move to after being in London, and there De Quincey continued to contribute to magazines, writing about Wordsworth and Coleridge. He died there in 1859.

Thomas De Quincey’s Masonic text is certainly an interesting one as it explores a thought provoking view on the origins of Freemasonry in England, and it became somewhat popular as an accessible published source on Masonry during the nineteenth century. He knew Freemasons such as James Hogg, and moved in the top literary circles of the day, where he was known as the Opium Eater. As his Masonic piece was later commonly published with his Confessions, it gave many a reader an insight into the mysterious origins of Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism, and remains an enigmatic piece in its own right.

  • 3 Thomas De Quincey, ‘Historico-Critical Inquiry into the Origins of the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons’, originally published in the London Magazine, January 1824, and reprinted in Collected Writings, ed. David Masson, Edinburgh, 1890, XIII, pp.384-448.
  • 4 Lindop, pp.267-8.
  • 5 See F.A. Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, (London: Routledge, 1999), p.209.
  • 6 James Hogg had been initiated into Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No. 2 just before his death in 1835.

See also