The book begins with figures often overlooked in literary studies but responsible for shaping the nation and its agricultural productivity—including Burke, Malthus, Sir John Sinclair, and the Duke of Bedford. Beasts of Burden then weaves into this narrative of national progress a number of known and lesser known labor class literary authors and advocates for the rural poor who give voice to those for whom “improved agriculture” means a loss of livelihood including Robert Bloomfield, Thomas Batchlor, Robert Burns, James Hogg, and William Cobbett. The role of animal life unfolds over the course book and is addressed prominently in the final chapters on Thomas Bewick, George Stubbs, and Edwin Landseer.
In the final chapter, the phenomenal world in which we comport ourselves gives way to a radical exteriority—an earth in which we are enmeshed but one that will go on (differently) without us. We glimpse the earth of opaque and resistant things in Wordsworth’s “Ruined Cottage” and Keats’s “To Autumn.” More radically, in the inaccessible summit in Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” the polar region of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Antarctic seas and spectral force of the albatross in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Romantic authors have explored the haunting of an inhuman earth among us and the leveling sensibility of a world without us.