I was reading Book III of William Cowper's The Task today. Lines 252-260:

Such was thy wisdom, Newton, childlike sage,
Sagacious reader of the works of God,
And in his word sagacious. Such too thine,
Milton, whose genius had angelic wings,
And fed on manna. And such thine, in whom
Our British Themis gloried with just cause,
Immortal Hale, for deep discernment praised,
And sound integrity not more, than famed
For sanctity of manners undefiled.

Newton and Milton are easy of course. But who on earth is Hale? I've searched through Wikipedia for everyone with the surname Hale that Cowper would have known about, and the best match I can find is Sir Matthew Hale - a seventeenth century judge best known today for declaring the impossiblity of marital rape - which is still quite a jump from the first two!

  • Can I just ask, although Sambrook also identifies Newton as Isaac, do you agree with that, or do you think it possible from the preceding lines that he meant his friend, and neighbour, prominent abolitionist and preacher, John Newton.
    – Spagirl
    Oct 2, 2019 at 14:09
  • @Spagirl It's possible, but I'd bet a fair sum of money that Cowper meant Isaac. Firstly, if one just says, 'Newton' on its own, the reader's mind will automatically jump to Isaac Newton - both now and in Cowper's day. Cowper would have known this. Secondly, Isaac Newton combined scientific insight with a fierce - if eccentric - Christian faith; this fits much better with the point which Cowper is trying to make in this section of The Task. I'm sure the double meaning crossed Cowper's mind, however.
    – Tom Hosker
    Oct 2, 2019 at 17:38

1 Answer 1


James Sambrook appears to agree that you have the correct Hale, in the annotations to his William Cowper: The Task and Selected Other Poems

258. Hale: Sir Matthew Hale (1609-76), Chief Justice of the King's Bench, devout Puritan, and able philosophical defender of the Mosaic Account of the creation.

The Mosaic Account of the Creation is the order of creation as laid out in Genesis, 'Mosaic' denoting the tradition that the first five books of the Bible were written by Moses.

On Hale's view of the non-retractability of a wife's consent, we can only hope that Cowper's unmarried state left him in ignorance of the consequences of Hale's doctrine.

  • 1
    Thank you ever so much. That makes more sense now. Wikipedia says a great deal about Hale's legal career, yet the same page all but ignores his philosophical writings. It's interesting how differently Hale's life was perceived in Cowper's day versus now. Or perhaps Cowper had an unusual take on someone who was already a bit obscure, even then.
    – Tom Hosker
    Oct 2, 2019 at 17:26

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