Beasts of Burden

Biopolitics, Labor, and Animal Life in British Romanticism

By Ron Broglio

Subjects: Literary Criticism, British Studies, Romanticism, Nineteenth-century Studies
Series: SUNY series, Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century
Paperback : 9781438465685, 178 pages, January 2018
Hardcover : 9781438465678, 178 pages, April 2017

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Table of contents


1. Animal Life and Rural Labor: Literary and Material Resistance in Biopolitical Britain

2. Docile Numbers and Stubborn Bodies: Population and the Problem of Multitude

3. On Vulnerability: Studies from Life That Ought Not to Be Copied

4. Wonder as Resistance: Sheep, Fairies, and James Hogg the Ettrick Shepherd

5. Animal Dwelling in Natural History: Thomas Bewick, George Stubbs, and Corporality

6. Man Proposes, Animality Disposes: Antihuman Landseer with Implications for Biopolitical Britain

7. Afterword: Romanticism in the Dust of This Planet


Uses literature, art, and cultural texts from the British Romantic period to explore the age in which biological life and its abilities first became regulated by the rising nation.


In Beasts of Burden, Ron Broglio examines how lives—human and animal—were counted in rural England and Scotland during the Romantic period. During this time, Britain experienced unprecedented data collection from censuses, ordinance surveys, and measurements of resources, all used to quantify the life and productivity of the nation. It was the dawn of biopolitics—the age in which biological life and its abilities became regulated by the state. Borne primarily by workers and livestock, nowhere was this regulation felt more powerfully than in the fields, commons, and enclosures. Using literature, art, and cultural texts of the period, Broglio explores the apparatus of biopolitics during the age of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus. He looks at how data collection turned everyday life into citizenship and nationalism and how labor class poets and artists recorded and resisted the burden of this new biopolitical life. The author reveals how the frictions of material life work over and against designs by the state to form a unified biopolitical Britain. At its most radical, this book changes what constitutes the central concerns of the Romantic period and which texts are valuable for understanding the formation of a nation, its agriculture, and its rural landscapes.

Ron Broglio is Associate Professor of English and Senior Scholar in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. He is the author of Surface Encounters: Thinking with Animals and Art and Technologies of the Picturesque: British Art, Poetry, and Instruments, 1750–1830.


"Yet perhaps the most important contribution of Beasts of Burden is its unwavering insistence on identifying moments and modes of resistance across Romantic poetic and visual works. Broglio makes a sustained and passionate case for vitality, wonder, mystery, and defiance as constitutive aspects of life beyond humanist frames. In this way, Beasts of Burden opens up exciting new paths for Romanticist inquiries into posthuman and biopolitical life." — Isis

"…Beasts of Burden illuminates the tensions between biopolitical projects (largely defined as the Foucauldian variety) and laboring bodies such as the slaughtered cow, the lost sheep, the trusty working dog, and homo juridicus, the subject of law. In looking at creatures 'in the landscape,' this author modernizes a field of inquiry previously worked by the likes of John Barrell, Ann Bermingham, and Raymond Williams … this volume makes such satisfying connections between concerns of the Romantic period and its literary output that it will be helpful for both the lit scholar needing to historicize poems as well as the historian trying to grasp the literature." — British Society for Literature and Science

"…Broglio's writing, while demanding, is clear and accessible, and he balances theoretical discussions with illuminating close readings of literature and art. This is one of the book's greatest strengths: it is packed with ideas and information, and it reveals the benefits of applying a complicated theoretical field (biopolitics) to the study of British Romantic literature, art, and culture. Beasts of Burden is thus an important contribution to biopolitics, ecocriticism, and Romantics studies. It is a true tour de force of literary scholarship." — European Romantic Review

"Ambitious and innovative, Beasts of Burden crackles with intelligence, warmth, and insight." — Review 19