Both explicitly and implicitly, eighteenth-century long poems written in and about Canada are celebrations of the presence or laments over the absence of peace, order, and good government in Britain's North American colonies.  The Union of Taste and Science, a Poem: to Which Are Adjoined a Few Elucidating Notes (1799) by Stephen Dickson is no exception.  "[A] fine specimen of early Canadian printing" from the press of John Nielson, it is a meditation on the structures of the natural and human world whose very form—decasyllabic couplets—reflects the order imparted to the universe by God, safeguarded by the British "love of order" (75) that was then stemming the tide of chaos emanating from post-revolutionary France, and manifested in the uniquely human capacity to generate and systematize knowledge ("Science") and to discern and create beauty ("Taste").  It is entirely consistent with the poem's political logic that in its concluding lines Dickson heaps praise on Lieutenant Governor and Mrs. Robert Prescott as exemplars of God-given qualities and institutions that are now present in Canada, Prescott for being a military hero1 (see Burroughs 690-91) and a collector of scientific specimens and his wife as a fountainhead of "Elegance. . .Love. . .Dignity" and "the precepts that refin[e]" (190-93).  The Prescotts may well have been friends of Dickson (see Ketcheson), but this did not prevent him from extravagantly allegorizing their marriage as a meeting place of "immortal SCIENCE" (6) and exquisite TASTE:

By Virtue favour'd, as by Wisdom plann'd,
Long may the honour'd union bless the land
Of TASTE and SCIENCE! wide may they impart
The influence that refines and cheers the heart,
Yet nerves the soul t'establish as to feel
The public glory, and the public weal!
And long may Canada exulting own
PRESCOTTS reflecting lustre to the throne.


Although Dickson's exaltation of "Taste," "Science," and the British civilization that is bringing them to Canada concludes with a pretty compliment to the Prescotts, his references earlier in the poem to several instances of military and civil disorder suggest that he may have been responding in part to the problems faced by Prescott in Lower Canada after his arrival in June 1796.  "[R]umours of impending French invasions. . .caused excitement in the colony throughout 1796 and 1797; the province. . .seemed to be swarming with elusive French spies and American agitators[;]. . .during the elections of 1796. . .the seigneurs. . .were eliminated as a social force [and]. . .disturbances occurred in various parts of Lower Canada,. . .especially Montreal" (Burroughs 692).  With the horrific execution of the American plotter David McLean in 1797 and "the receding prospect of a French invasion, the atmosphere of crisis abated," but Prescott was then faced with problems emanating from the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, and a chaotic land-granting system, the last of which led to a deterioration of his relationship with his Executive Council that was severe enough to result in his recall to England in April 1799.  It would thus appear that The Union of Taste and Science had little success in persuading its readers that the Prescotts were doing as much as needed to be done in "reflecting lustre to the throne" in and from Lower Canada.

In the body of his poem, Dickson uses a series of references to natural history, landscape design and other subjects as well as allusions to the Bible, classical mythology, and eighteenth-century English literature and philosophy to awaken the reader to the abundance and varieties of order in the natural and human realms.  Not unlike A.M. Klein's archetypal Modern poet more than a century and a half later, he first ascends and then descends in imagination to record the large-scale phenomena of the "terrestrial ball," including the war against France (29-44), "the dread Monsoon" (45-46), and the ocean's depths (47-52).  Availing himself of the example of the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-78), whose tours of Lapland and elsewhere furnished him with the data for the classification of plant life, he places on view an array of examples of physical and social order in the natural world, from "the fabrics of the beaver pond" and (with an eye on such texts as Bernard de Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees; or, Private Vices, Public Benefits [1714, 1723]) "the well ordered kingdom of the bee" to the invention of the lightning rod and the blast furnace, a device that he relates to the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego whose "radiant forms" in the "burning fiery furnace of Daniel" (3.19-30) "bespoke their mighty Lord" (68-69, 95).

When he turns from "Science" to "Taste" Dickson reflects the gender stereotypes of his day as well as his encomiastic intentions by introducing a female personification—"a lovely nymph of tender years, / Daughter of Beauty" (103-04)—to complement the "eldest-born" son of "Nature" and "Genius" (1-4).  Whether "govern[ing]" the hand of Michelangelo, "rehears[ing]" Handel's "choral lays," or "shar[ing]" the "woes" of the poet, essayist, and landscape gardener William Shenstone (1714-63), "Taste" is very much the ancillary figure that she is in a passage that echoes forward in Canadian literature to the work of Catharine Parr Traill and Isabella Valancy Crawford in its emphasis on the feminine embellishment of architectural forms:

. . .at her bidding magic Fancy clew,
And still created as her mistress drew.
From yonder hill she par'd a shapeless hump;
That lawn embellish'd with its tufted clump;
Yon mouldering Priory that naked stood,
Emboss'd with ivy, and o'erhung with wood;
There thro' a lazy streamlet's oozy bed
The lively current in meanders led;
Swell'd the light convex of that bordering height,
Yet gave the distant scenery to our sight.


The ensuing union of "Science" and "Taste" is made in heaven, and rendered with a degree of sexual explicitness that is somewhat surprising in light of its subsequent referral to the Prescotts: "Her tender breast dilates with new desire," she "smiles him to her arms" where he "pants entrammel'd by her charms," and, when he is called to "hurl. . .Britannia's thunder o'er the Nile" at Napoleon, her "breast [is] cold amid the glittering blaze" until the "fervid sun of SCIENCE" shines again and "swell[s] her bosom, and unloos[es] her zone" (152-77).

With the introduction of Mrs. Prescott as the force that (in today's terminology) grounds "Taste" by blending "'Elegance'" with "'Love'" and "'Dignity'" (193), The Union of Taste and Science becomes a fanciful account of the Prescotts' life after his appointment as lieutenant-governor of Lower Canada.  Their journey across the Atlantic and their arrival at the governor's mansion (the Chateau Saint-Louis [1647, 1692-1700])2 are energetically described, as is the extensive collection of crystals, minerals, rocks, shells, and stuffed fish and animals that the Prescotts apparently brought with them to Quebec and augmented while there, this, of course, being Prescott's main claim to being an avatar of "Science" (194-251).  To Dickson's Christian and Georgian eyes, the "precious stones" in Prescott's collection engender thoughts of the "wondrous city" of the Book of Revelation (241-51) and the absence of a "diamond" from the collection bespeaks a "modest[y]" that a decade earlier Thomas Cary had discerned in the behavior of Sir Guy Carleton (Lord Dorchester), Prescott's predecessor as lieutenant-governor of Lower Canada (256-57).

With a becoming modesty of his own, Dickson precedes the salute to the Prescotts with which The Union of Taste and Science concludes by conceding that "description" and "skimming comment" are "inadequate" to the task at hand:

How can [the Muse] body forth her rainbow words
To paint the living colours of the birds?
How conjure up each floweret to the eye
Its form delineate, and revive its dye?
How, most of all, the witching Grace convene
That breathes a matchless magic o'er the scene
Where mingling Pleasure and Instruction lurk,
While TASTE and SCIENCE own it as their work?


As Klein would recognize in "Kreighoff: Calligrammes," the black and white (or grey) of the "paysage page" places severe limits on the ability of the poet to convey a vivid sense of the world's shapes and colours:3

. . .tented A's inverted V's
may circumflex the paysage page

with French-Canadian trees. . .

●     ●     ●

. . .or show

the wigwams and the gables
of Kreighoff the pat petted verities.

●     ●     ●

But colours?  Ah, the two colours!
These must be spun, these must be bled
out of the iris of the intent sight. . . .

(2: 282)



The Present Text



The present text of The Union of Taste and Science, a Poem: to Which Are Adjoined a Few Elucidating Notes is based on that in the first edition, which was "Printed by John Neilson, No 3 Mountain Street," Quebec, in 1799.  The fact that, as observed above, Prescott returned to England in April 1799 suggests that the poem was published earlier that year.







Apparently, Prescott's experience of Canada in 1758-62 (he participated in the siege of Louisbourg in 1758 and then served for the better part of two years in Lower Canada [see Burroughs 690]), left him with an abiding affection for Canadian architecture, for in 1782 he built an "imitation of a Canadian frame-house" in Winchelsea, Kent, a village that, as Ford Madox Ford observes, has other "North-American features": "[t]he streets [are] all rectangular, like those of New York, and the houses in blocks.  This is because it [was] built all of a piece by Edward III in 1333.  He had planned it, ruling squares on a sheet of vellum, after the sea had drowned Old Winchelsea on the flats below" (18-19). [back]


See Kalman 1: 28 for a brief account of the building and alteration of the Château Saint-Louis, which was destroyed by fire in 1834 and Ernest Gagnon Le Fort et le Château Saint-Louis (Québec): Étude archéologique et historique for an authoritative account of its history. [back]


See also D.M.R. Bentley 201-16. [back]



Works Cited in the Introduction



Bentley, D.M.R.  The Gay] Grey Moose: Essays on the Ecologies and Mythologies of

Canadian Poetry, 1690-1990.  Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1992.

Burroughs, Peter.  "Robert Prescott."  Dictionary of Canadian Biography.  5: 690-93.

Ford, Ford Madox.  Return to Yesterday.  1932.  New York: Liveright, 1972.

Gagnon, Ernest.  Le Fort et le château Saint-Louis (Québec): Étude archéologique et

historique.  Rev. ed. Montreal: Beauchemin, 1908.

Kalman, Harold.  A History of Canadian Architecture.  2 vols.  Toronto: Oxford U P, 1994.

Klein, A.M.  Complete Poems.  Ed. Zailig Pollock.  2 vols.  Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990.