Twice Shy

Seamus Heaney


Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney is one of the best-loved poets of all time.

After he passed away in 2013, the world went into grieving.

Like many of Heaney’s poems, Twice Shy deals with disillusionment, specifically that of a young couple who have had unpleasant romantic experiences in their past relationship. However, the poem puts a distinctly more positive spin on the theme than some of his other works, as it is set after the period of disillusionment, instead of describing the loss of innocence. Rather than being bitter for their experiences, the characters (lovers) seem wiser and show a hesitant yet hopeful outlook. I enjoyed this poem because of its vivid and specific details, like the mention of her scarf in the beginning, and because it seemed to tell a complex story in a misleadingly small and simple poem.

Twice Shy by Seamus Heaney


Structure and Language

The poet has used every possible literary device to convey his message to the readers. He has used allusion, metaphor, conceit and rhyme scheme. Some of the examples of the used literary devices in the poem are as follows:

  • Allusion: In the very title of the poem, Heaney refers to a very famous proverb, “Once bitten, twice shy”, which sheds light over the important message of the poem; the lovers are depicted cautious since they’ve had bitter past experiences in love. Now they don’t want to make any mistake, therefore take every possible measure not to commit any mistake this time.
  • Metaphor: The poem has a very interesting metaphor in the fourth stanza, where the poet says “Our Juvenilia/Had taught us both to wait”. Finding the word; it comes out that “juvenilia” stands for the early works of an author. The following “Not to publish feeling/And regret it all too late -” further lays emphasis on this through the verb “publish”. This looked primarily noteworthy taking into account Heaney’s own experience as a published author, and it led me think whether, considering his prolonged career, if he ever expressed his regret over his previous works as they might mirror outlooks he has since outgrown.
  • Conceit: Heaney confers an extremely profound meaning to the characters’ relationship by continually alluding to them as “hawk and prey”, and portraying them as “chary and excited/As thrush linked on a hawk” or “tremulous as a hawk”. This looks as if an uncertain comparison of the lovers is being made, but similar to the title, it emphasizes the mood of caution and wariness; neither is certain whether the other is the hawk, and if they’re meant to be the prey.
  • Rhyme: There is a similar rhyme scheme in each stanza of the poem wherein the second, fourth and final lines rhyme. For example; in the very first line of the poem, the readers find words like “walk”, “talk”, and “walk”. With this structure of the lines, a unique rhythm is created in the poem.

Seamus Heaney’s poem, Twice Shy, can be read in full here.


Twice Shy Analysis

Stanza One

Her scarf a la Bardot,
In suede flats for the walk,
We crossed the quiet river,
Took the embankment walk.

Every poem consists of a title; some are useful, some are not. The useful title of a poem gives an indication at the very outset of the poem, and tells about its expectation. On the other hand, there are poems with confusing and enigmatic titles, which remain out of understanding even after several hours of creative pondering. Besides, there are titles that can be understood only after a thorough understanding of the poem. Twice Shy by Seamus Heaney is one such masterpiece. The phrase “twice shy” looks to have been derived from the old saying “Once bitten, twice shy,” and this shows that the characters in the poem have previously had a bitter experience and are now trying to build up their unison. This phrase aptly expresses the tumultuous feelings, attitudes, and emotions a teenage goes through when in love.

The poem has a very simple central idea; that is a girl and a boy, most likely adolescents, who come out for a walk on a cool, spring evening. However, their virtuous raising and nurturing compels them to move warily, to “preserve classic decorum” and to avoid publishing their feeling. Heaney skillfully interweaves the poetic elements of setting and time to render a perfect account of the characters’ feelings. He knowingly chooses the season of Spring, la saison de l’amour, to lay emphasis on the stirring experience that the two kids have to go through. The twilight dusk of March appears like a “vacuum of need” and at the same time makes fun of the indecisive flux of emotions that arise in the hearts of the two lovers.


Stanza Two

Traffic holding its breath,
Hanging deadly, calm.

All through the poem, the readers are shown a union of sentiment shedding light on the characters’ minds and bodies; this is particularly expressed through line 7, when the speaker says: “traffic holding its breath.” The frailty of the sky is indicated by referring it a “tense diaphragm”. Even a small mistake on the part of one of the lovers can smash the delight of the moment and, emblematically speaking, send the sky falling down. In line 9 of this stanza, the “blackcloth” in the background enhance the foreground and to the people in it. Suddenly, the edges of the characters’ dispositions have been identified.

In brief, there is “tremulous as a hawk,” nervous and deadly atmosphere all through the poem, and still, get succeeded in keeping up a terse sense of serenity and calmness. Heaney’s diction, i.e., his selection of words, is hypercritical. The poet has made deliberate selection of the word to be like a “Pebble dropped into a pond.” The ripples created by these words collide with those that adjacent words bring about— the total effect is an excellently-intertwined harmonical verse that renders a flash of felicity to even the unexperienced reader.

Heaney deals with certain elements, especially the feminity of the girl, with much ease. In the poem, the girl supposedly attempting to recover her losses wishes to “come one evening for air and friendly talk.” The mitigation evidence breaks out a transitory inclination within the reader’s mind. In addition, Heaney makes use of a unique rhyme scheme in the poem. Why has he done so? Most probably to again put emphasis on the rhythmic cadence of the characters’ as well as the speaker’s emotions and feelings that repeatedly goes low and high like the tide.


Stanza Three

A vacuum of need
Deployed our talk with art.

It is hard to ignore the use of imagery by Heaney in the poem. The poet has effectively used the imagery of birds like swan and hawk with a view to conveying feelings and ideas. Let’s face it; personification of cadence and swiftness has been best portrayed by a swan, when the poet says, “That shook where a swan swam.” The image of ripples moving radially, quickly outward is an excellent example to picture the empty canvas, i.e. the mind of a teenager in love. The hawk certainly characterizes the fear, the nervous atmosphere, the edginess, and the anxiety of the moment. Going a step further, Heaney says that while the girl and boy are physically close to each other, their hearts and minds do not allow them to intimate physically, rather they continue to maintain an uncomfortable distance. Still, both of them are too excited to get united as a hawk does to paunch upon its prey.


Stanzas Four and Five

Our Juvenilia
Had taught us both to wait,
Still waters running deep
Along the embankment walk.

While the air is awash with simultaneous excitement and chariness, what follows on is just “nervous childish talk” and nothing more. The poet, in this stanza, beautifully captures a fear for regret and patience. The kids hold “juvenilia” responsible for their supposed will-power and courage to not let them go ahead with their burning feelings. Thus, though the walk on the shore has nothing except the childish and friendly talk, the readers are made to believe that it’s been an unforgettable and thrilling experience for both of them. When Heaney uses his second image of “still waters running deep” in the poem, he brings to light the mix of contentment, impatience, satisfaction, anxiety and the flux of the moment, — all in one fell sweep.

Finally, mere line 6 and 30 can’t be immaturely overruled as an accident. The tacit irony is that the entire rendezvous is just an “embankment walk”, which smartly shows the bartering of feelings and ideas all through this strife. It may perhaps even put a question to ask about the level of closeness between the characters. Emotions dash fast, so fast that a traffic jam is caused. The integration of uncertainly and fear lastly, the vacancy that supervenes toward the end of the poem — all undeniably make Twice Shy an enjoyable read.



This is one of most favorite poems that I have always been admiring when it comes to expressing the feelings and emotions of two jilted lovers. Great, what imagery and metaphor Heaney has used to bring out what is inside the minds of these teenage lovers. With the best use of literary devices, the poet not only adds colours to the characterization the protagonists, but also to love. The literary device that makes the best portrayal of these love-birds is the bird imagery. The bird, which is free and knows no bounds similarly the lovers know no bounds and limited, they are free like a bird. On the other hand, metaphorically, the poet compares them to ‘a thrush linked on a hawk.’ By comparing the lovers with birds, Heaney shows a feeling of freedom, ability and potential that is really hard to describe in the form of human capability. Finally, this poem sheds light over many points related to the issue of young love: innocence, naivety, tension and anxiety.


Historical Background of Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney is well-known as ‘an archaeologist of language. Heaney’s poetry is a delicately-crafted record of clear and vivid observations and intense feelings. Heaney has a very strong sense of place and the people who populate these places are a strong and forceful presence in his poems. The familiar landscape of the Irish bog had according to Heaney ‘a strange assuaging effect’ on him and had been a powerful motif for most of his poetry. He invites his readers to the intimacy of his personal life in order to sensually present the tensions between love and loneliness. The most popular contemporary Irish poet has a universal significance in most of his poetry with his extraordinary gift of language. Heaney started writing poetry with a resolution to ‘dig’ with his pen. Heaney best portrays the tension existing between love and the loneliness of separation in his intensely personal love poems. Twice Shy and Valediction are his early love poems. Both these poems are witty and light, based on an extended metaphor, and offer a warm sunny glimpse of uncomplicated love. Twice Shy depicts the early stages of a relationship.

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Dharmender Kumar Poetry Expert
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.

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