Written in 1896 and originally a collection of poems that seemed destined to go out of print forever, A Shropshire Lad comprises 63 individual poems of varying meter and length, all dealing with the themes of adolescence, the rustic countryside of Shropshire, and premature death, usually by violence, war, e.g., I, III, IV, XXXV, LVI; homicide, e.g., VIII, XXV?; suicide, e.g., XVI, XLIV, XLV, LIII, LXI; and state execution by hanging, e.g., IX, XLVII. There are the deaths of young lovers (XI, XXVII), young soldiers (see war and XXIII, perhaps), young revelers (XLIX) and young athletes (XIX). The living and dying and, most of all, the remembering occurs in the pastoral setting of Shropshire.
As George Orwell remarked in Inside the Whale and Other Essays, A Shropshire Lad represented one of his generation's most popular poems. Just like Maxine Kumin (q.v.), Orwell had memorized large portions of it. Although it strikes this modern reader as a mostly maudlin celebration of Menander's sentiment, an aphorism that would have been well known to Housman, the superb classicist (editor of Propertius and Manlius), viz., "Whom the Gods love dies young", there are some remarkable poems, e.g., II "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now" and XIX "To an Athlete Dying Young"; two elegant variations of the Narcissus myth (XV and XX); and the occasionally striking couplet, e.g., LXII "And malt does more than Milton can / To justify God's ways to man."