Having lost his first employment - with a procureur - through dishonesty, he obtained a clerkship in the Paris octroi in 1789, but was dismissed for abandoning his post when the Parisians burned the octroi barriers on the night of the L2th-13th of July 1789.
A crisis occurred in Cowper's life when his cousin Major Cowper nominated him to a clerkship in the House of Lords.
He was articled as a law clerk in Edinburgh, and his Elegy on Craigmillar Castle (1776) was printed during his clerkship. In 1781 he removed to London to devote himself to literary work, publishing in the same year a volume of Rimes of no great merit, and Scottish Tragic Ballads.
Then came a few years of terrible poverty; but at the beginning of 1862 he obtained a clerkship, at the modest salary of a pound a week, in the house of Hachette the publisher.
In 1589 he received the first substantial piece of patronage from his powerful kinsman, the reversion of the clerkship of the Star Chamber.