A Shropshire Lad was first published in 1896 at Housman's own expense after several publishers had turned it down. His colleagues and students were surprised by the emotional depth and vulnerability it revealed in an apparently distant and self-contained man. At first the book sold slowly, but during the Second Boer War (1899–1902), Housman's nostalgic description of rural life and young men's early deaths struck a chord with English readers and the book became a best-seller. Its popularity increased during World War I. Arthur Somervell and other composers were inspired by the folksong-like simplicity of the poems, and the most famous musical settings are by George Butterworth (Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad and Bredon Hill and Other Songs) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (On Wenlock Edge), with others by Ivor Gurney, John Ireland and Ernest John Moeran.
Housman was surprised by the success of A Shropshire Lad, thinking that its deep pessimism and obsession with death, without the consolations of religion, would not appeal to a Victorian audience. The poems are set in a half-imaginary pastoral Shropshire, "the land of lost content", and Housman wrote most of them before visiting the county. He described the transience of love and youth in simple, unadorned language that many critics of the time thought old-fashioned. Housman himself acknowledged the influence of the songs of William Shakespeare, the Scottish Border ballads and Heinrich Heine, but specifically denied any influence of Greek and Latin classics in his poetry.
The main theme of A Shropshire Lad is mortality and the need to seize the day, because death can strike at any time. For example, number IV, titled "Reveille", urges an unnamed "lad" not to sleep away the sunlight, for "When the journey's over/There'll be time enough to sleep."
One of Housman's most familiar poems is number XIII from A Shropshire Lad, untitled but often anthologised under a title taken from its first line. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes no fewer than fourteen of its sixteen lines:
When I was one-and-twenty
"Give crowns and pounds and guineas
Give pearls away and rubies
But I was one-and-twenty,
When I was one-and-twenty
"The heart out of the bosom
'Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And I am two-and-twenty
Poem XXVII, "Is My Team Ploughing" is a dialogue between a dead youth and a friend who has survived him. The dead youth asks:
"Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And is she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?"
The living replies:
"Ay, she lies down lightly,
She lies not down to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
Be still, my lad, and sleep."
Two stanzas later the living man acknowledges, what the reader has begun to suspect:
"I cheer a dead man's sweetheart.
Never ask me whose."
Poem LXII, "Terence, this is stupid stuff", is a dialogue in which the poet, asked for "a tune to dance to" instead of his usual "moping melancholy" verse, says that his verse is not intended to be merry but to console its readers in an "embittered hour" against the troubles of life. He offers the example of the old King Mithridates, who tasted a little of every poison until he inured himself to them all. Housman advises the speaker that it is wise to occasionally contemplate and prepare for the darker side of life.
Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure,
I'd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
A Shropshire Lad contains several repeated themes. It is not a connected narrative, though it can be read as an allegory of a heart's journey through life. The "I" of the poems, the authorial person, is in two cases named as Terence (VIII, LXII), the "Shropshire Lad" of the title. However, the poems are not all in the same voice and the stories they tell are not intended as a single coherent narrative.
The collection begins by paying tribute to the Shropshire lads who have died as soldiers in the service of Queen Victoria, as her golden jubilee (1887) is celebrated with a beacon bonfire at Clee (I). There is little time for a lad to live and enjoy the spring (II). Death awaits the soldier (III-IV). Maids are not always kind (V-VI) and the farmer also comes to the grave (VII). Some lads murder their brothers and are hanged (VIII-IX). Love may be unrequited (X). A dead lad's ghost begs the consolation of a last embrace (XI). Unattainable love leaves the lad helpless and lost (XIII-XVI). The playing of a game of cricket or football consoles a broken heart (XVII).
The athlete who died young was lucky, for he did not outlive his renown (XIX). The poet exchanges a glance with a marching soldier and wishes him well, though thinking they will never cross paths again (XXII). He envies the country lads who die young and do not grow old (XXIII). Quick, while he is alive and young, allow him to work beside you! (XXIV). A lover may die, and his girl will walk out with another (XXV-XXVII). The hostility of the ancient Saxon and Briton are in his blood, and he owes his life to violence and rape (XXVIII). The storm on Wenlock Edge symbolizes the same turmoil in his soul as the Romans knew at Wroxeter (XXXI). He is here but for a moment – take this hand! (XXXII) But if he is of no use to them that he loves, he will go away, perhaps to be a soldier (XXXIV, XXXV). Or one may live an exile from home in London, but without forgetting home and friends (XXXVII, XXXVIII).
The wind sighs across England to him from Shropshire, but he will not see the broom flowering gold on Wenlock Edge (XXXVIII-XL). London is full of cold-hearted men who fear and hate one other, but he will make the best of life while he has a living will (XLIII). The suicide is wise, for he prefers to die cleanly than live in shame (XLIV). Bring him no flowers, but only what will never flower again (XLVI). A carpenter's son once died on the gallows, so that other lads might live (XLVII). He was happy before he was born, but he will endure life for a while: the cure for all sorrows will come in time (XLVIII). If crowded and noisy London has its troubles, so do quiet Clun and Knighton, and the only cure for any of them is the grave (L).
Though he is in London, his spirit wanders about his home fields (LII). From the unquiet grave the suicide's ghost visits the beloved (LIII). Those he loved are dead, and other youths eternally re-live his own experiences (LV). Like the lad that becomes a soldier, one can choose death and face it (LVI). Dick is in the graveyard, and Ned is long in jail, as he comes home to Ludlow (LVIII). Take your pack and go: death will be a journey into eternal night (LX). It matters not if he sleeps among the suicides, or among those who died well – they were all his friends(LXI). Do you mock his melancholy thoughts? He has used them like the poisons sampled by Mithridates, and shall die old (LXII). Perhaps these poems are not fashionable, but they will always please other lads like him (LXIII).
The uniform style and tone of A Shropshire Lad make it easy to parody, as in this example by Humbert Wolfe:
When lads have done with labour
"Let's go and kill a neighbour,"
So this one kills his cousins,
And, as they hang by dozens
Each of them one-and-twenty,
The hangman mutters: "Plenty
and this, by Hugh Kingsmill, which, according to Cyril Alington writing in Poets at Play, Housman described as 'the only good parody' of A Shropshire Lad:
What, still alive at twenty-two,
Why, if your throat is hard to slit,
Like enough you won't be glad
But bacon's not the only thing
When the blotting pad of night
Lads whose job is still to do
There are numerous references to and commemorations of this collection in literature and art. One example is a wall hanging A Shropshire Lad displayed in St Laurence Church, Ludlow, England.
The collection was also commemorated by the Railway company Wrexham & Shropshire when they named Class 67 67012 A Shropshire Lad after running a competition in the Shropshire Star Newspaper. The Shropshire Brewery, Woods, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the book by naming their bitter after it.