Twice Shy

Twice Shy

Heaney describes a walk, perhaps their very first, with the woman who would become his wife and to whom he has been married for forty years when District and Circle is published in 2006.

The speaker is walking along a riverside with a woman whom he finds at once stylishly attractive, Her scarf á la Bardot yet practical: suede flats for the walk. Behind the pretext for their stroll, for air and friendly talk, an intense gravitational (see previous poem) pull is exerting itself.

The attraction they are sharing has brought everything to a standstill: on the ground Traffic holding its breath; in the air Sky a tense diaphragm. Nightfall has provided a stage-set sensitive to the slightest change like a backcloth/ That shook where a swan swam. The couple have reached a dramatic moment of nervous thrill akin to that of a predator gathering itself to swoop down on its prey: Tremulous as a hawk/ Hanging deadly, calm.

The breath-holding impulse to fall into each other’s arms is reined back: A vacuum of need/ collapsed each hunting heart. Reciprocated feelings have given them joint responsibility for timing.

On this occasion they resisted the thrilling pull of ‘gravity’: tremulously we held/ As hawk and prey apart; they retained a respectable distance and changed the subject: Preserved classic decorum,/ Deployed our talk with art.

The good sense to take things one step at a time is down to juvenilia, things learnt from their youthful experience: Mushroom loves already/ Had puffed and burst in hate.

So the inevitable (As a thrush linked on a hawk) will have to wait; this instant will remain a mark of chary and excited togetherness, the thrill of the moment, the nervous childish talk. Heaney links moment and place in a forecast that will hold good: Still water running deep.

  • A nascent relationship is reported; insights are offered into the personalities of both participants. It is also worth recalling the inhibiting, repressive sexual mores (especially among Catholics) of the 50s that preceded revolutionary changes in moral attitudes before 1960;
  • The title invites us to complete the idiom ‘once bitten twice shy’: people who have been hurt are extra careful the next time round (especially in matters of love);
  • Despite British Establishment frowns, French actress Brigitte Bardot erupted onto British cinema screens in the late 50s; her ravishing pouting sexuality and the nature of the films she appeared in immediately branded her as a ‘sex kitten’. Her fashion-style and accessories were quickly adopted by many young women as image enhancers.
  • Still water running deep: a quiet manner concealing depths of feeling (a commonly used idiom);
  • Flats: shorthand for ‘flat-heeled shoes’;
  • Diaphragm: part of the thorax whose nerve-centre is particularly affected by the emotions (‘butterflies in the tummy’ idea);
  • Juvenilia generally a term applied to literary, musical or artistic works produced by authors during their youth is applied more generally here to ‘life’;
  • The so-christened ‘Devlin poem’, first of series of lyrics that celebrate their relationship, recognises Marie’s place in Heaney’s development as a poet;
  • overlapping relationships can get in the way, too: questioned about mushroom loves leading to hate (Dennis O’Driscoll Stepping Stones p.45) Heaney felt that his need to find a rhyme had led to him overstate the situation. He talks of the ever painful business of disentangling (from a previous relationship) required when one meets the love of one’s life!


  • Heaney rings the changes of poetic form: here he chooses a 6-sextet format made up largely of hexameters with rhymes on the even lines and free verse on the odd; this creates a different music to the ear;
  • alliterated phrases: [k] classic decorum; crossed/ quiet; excited/ linked/ hawk; [t] regret it all too late; assonant effects, pairs: [eə] air/ friendly; [ai]  sky/ diaphragm; [ɒ]          swan/ swam; [ə] decorum/ deployed; and triplets: [ʌ]dusk/ hung/ shook; mushroom/ puffed/ burst;
  • Tremulous: onomatopoeic in its description of the nervous thrill being experienced and emotional jitters;
  • the early rhythm mimics the regular unhurried pace of footsteps; the tremulous emotional dilemma that intrudes adds tension and suspense to the rhythm, before calm returns via the enjambed lines of stanza 3;
  • The return from hormonal overdrive to serious conversation between intelligent people is expressed in more ‘learned’ terms: classic decorum … Deployed … juvenilia.