by Clare Rider, IT Archivist 1998-2009
When William Cowper's first volume of poems was published by Joseph Johnson of St. Paul's Churchyard in 1782 it was entitled Poems by William Cowper of the Inner Temple. However, this description has caused confusion amongst biographers of the poet who in some cases have assumed that William Cowper was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple. Others have noted correctly that he was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple, but give varying dates for his admission and Call. This article seeks to clarify the situation.
William Cowper was born on 15 November 1731 in Great Berkhamsted (also spelt Berkhamstead or Berkhampstead), Hertfordshire, the eldest son of the Reverend John Cowper and his wife, Anne, daughter of Roger Donne of Ludham Hall, Norfolk. William came from a family of Middle Temple lawyers, the most distinguished of whom were his grandfather, Spencer Cowper, Attorney General to the Prince of Wales and Judge of the Court of Common Pleas, and his great uncle, William, 1st Earl Cowper, appointed Lord Chancellor of Great Britain in 1707. Several of his close relatives, including his uncle, Ashley Cowper and cousin, William Cowper of Hertingfordbury, also trained as barristers at the Middle Temple. It is therefore not surprising that William, after studying at Westminster School, as many of his forbears had done, should join the Middle Temple on 29 April 1748. He made a number of friends during this time, including William Hayley, writer, poet and fellow Middle Templar,1 and Edward Thurlow of the Inner Temple, who was to become Lord Chancellor in 1778.2 He also kept up with his Westminster College school-fellows, including Joseph Hill, with whom he co-founded a weekly literary dining group named the Nonsense Club. In addition to writing poems, he seems to have found some time for his legal studies since he was called to Bar at the Middle Temple on 14 June 1754. In the minutes of the Middle Temple Parliament relating to his Call he was described incorrectly as C. Cowper, but the contemporary students ledger proves this to be a clerical error.3
The Inner Temple archives record that William Cowper, barrister, was admitted to the Inner Temple on 15 April 1757 and was confirmed as an ad eundem gradum member by the Inner Temple Parliament held on 17 June 1757.4 Ad eundem membership may be granted to barristers who wish to join the Inn from another Inn of Court on the same terms as they enjoyed in their original Inn. At this period it was common for barristers to transfer membership to another Inn in order to secure a tenancy of chambers in that Inn, generally available to members only. This seems to have been true in William Cowper's case, since on the same day his ad eundem status was confirmed, he was admitted to chambers in Inner Temple Lane for life, paying a £10 entry fine and forty shillings admittance fee.5 These chambers were on the first floor north of number 3 Inner Temple Lane (then known as the second staircase on the right) in a building which was demolished in the nineteenth century. The annual rent of four guineas (£4 4s 0d) was paid quarterly up to Hilary term 1800, when the chambers reverted to 'the House', Cowper having died on 25 April 1800.6
Whilst in the Inner Temple, William Cowper served as a Commissioner of Bankrupts, from 1759 to 1765, but despite family pressure he lacked the confidence to secure a more lucrative appointment. An attempt to apply for the post of Clerk to the Journals of the House of Lords prompted a mental breakdown and led him to leave London for the country. Cowper had long suffered from depression, probably since the death of his mother when he was only six, and this had been exacerbated by a blighted love affair with his cousin, Theodora. Theodora's father, Ashley Cowper, a barrister of the Middle Temple, forbade the relationship and William appears to have lapsed into periods of utter despair. His failure to face the rigours of examination for the House of Lords clerkship drove him to several suicide attempts. He resigned as Commissioner of Bankrupts in 1765.
- See J M Gover Literary Associations with the Middle Temple (Lent Reading 1935). I am grateful to Lesley Whitelaw, Archivist to the Middle Temple, for this reference. William Hayley went on to write The Life and Posthumous Writings of William Cowper Esqr. which was published in the 3 volumes by J Johnson of St Paul's Churchyard (London 1803-4).
- Cowper introduced Thurlow to his uncle, Ashley Cowper. According to Southey, William and Thurlow spent their time 'giggling and making giggle' Ashley's three daughters instead of studying the law: Dictionary of National Biography entry for William Cowper.
- Register of Admissions to the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple vol. I 1501-1781 ed. H A C Sturgess (London 1949) p339 footnote
- Inner Temple Archives ADM/5/4; A Calendar of the Inner Temple Records vol. V 1750-1800 ed. R A Roberts (London 1937) pp85,88
- CITR vol. V p85
- Inner Temple Archives CHA/5/4;CHA/2/2-3
Since William Cowper was apparently not resident in the Inner Temple after 1763, he must have sub-let his chambers in return for a regular, if modest, income. After spending some time in Dr Nathaniel Cotton's asylum in St Albans recovering from his mental breakdown, he moved to Huntingdon to be nearer his brother, John, a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. It was in during this period that Cowper met William Unwin, an undergraduate at Cambridge, who became a firm friend. Unwin introduced Cowper to his parents, the Reverend Morley and Mary Unwin, an evangelical Anglican clergyman and his wife who lived in Huntingdon. William Cowper became their lodger, and after the death of the Reverend Morley Unwin as the result of a riding accident in 1767, became the close companion of his widow. They did apparently plan to marry, but Cowper's mental condition made marriage impossible.
After the riding accident, Mary Unwin resolved to leave Huntingdon. Together they moved to Olney, Buckinghamshire, where they became close friends of the evangelical preacher, John Newton, who was curate there. It was Newton who suggested that Cowper co-write Olney Hymns with him and this book of evangelical poems was to lead to a revival of Cowper's creativity. Published in 1779, it contains a number of hymns still in use in Anglican churches today, including 'Amazing grace' and 'How sweet the name of Jesus sounds' by Newton and 'God moves in a mysterious way' by Cowper. From 1779, Cowper composed a series of other poems, most of which were published in his first volume of verse in 1782. It is interesting that he chose to describe himself in the book's title as 'William Cowper of the Inner Temple'. In 1785, the second volume of his poetry, The Task, was published, written at the suggestion of his friend and muse, Lady Austen. After a number of other publications, including translations of Homer's Odyssey and Iliad, his final work, The Castaway, received publication in 1799. This poem marked the end of a relatively short literary career, but one of a great significance for the development of English poetry.
William Cowper's poems sold well in his lifetime and, although less fashionable in subsequent centuries, had a profound influence on his contemporaries. Southey described him as 'the most popular poet of his generation and the best of English letter-writers'. Moving away from the studied intellectualism of the poetry of Alexander Pope and his circle, Cowper developed a direct and discursive personal style that appealed to a wider audience. The emotional and intellectual range of his poems was wide and the variety of tones he employed could move his readers from elation to despair. His accurate and sensitive descriptions of the natural world foreshadowed Wordsworth's and it is fitting to end with a nature poem by 'William Cowper of the Inner Temple', "The Poplar Field".