Twice Shy

A relationship is born. The so-christened ‘Devlin poem’ is first of a series of lyrics that celebrate their ties, recognising Marie’s place in Heaney’s development as a poet. His title invites us to complete the idiom ‘once bitten … twice shy’: those who have been hurt are doubly careful the next time round (especially in matters of love).

Heaney describes a walk (perhaps their very first) with the woman who was to become his wife and to whom he had been married for nearly fifty years when he died in 2013. They met during their University days.

The speaker is walking along the riverside with a woman he finds both sensationally attractive (Her scarf á la Bardot) yet sensible and practical (suede flats for the walk). Behind the pretext for their stroll, for air and friendly talk, an emotional drama is in preparation.

Their mutual ‘chemistry’ has generated suspense all round: on the ground Traffic holding its breath; in the air Sky a tense diaphragm. Nightfall has provided a setting sensitive to the slightest variation (a backcloth/ That shook where a swan swam) and the thrilling physical pull he feels has transformed him into predator stalking prey: Tremulous as a hawk/ Hanging deadly, calm.  

A breath-stopping impulse urged the couple to fall into each other’s arms (A vacuum of need/ collapsed each hunting heart) but they accepted joint responsibility for timing and on this first walk resisted the thrilling pull of ‘gravity’ (tremulously we held/ As hawk and prey apart), retained a respectable distance and changed the subject (Preserved classic decorum,/ Deployed our talk with art). 

Heaney attributes their caution to youthful experience (juvenilia), when early relationships were declared too hastily (publish feeling) and rued at length (regret it all too late), when extreme feelings were generated: Mushroom loves already/ Had puffed and burst in hate. 

So for the moment at least the face-off between caution (chary) and pleasure (excited ) protects the prey (a thrush linked on a hawk) restricting them to the thrill of the March twilight and nervous childish talk.  

Heaney weds moment and place via a forecast that will prove true: Still water running deep. 

Insights are offered into both Seamus Heaney’s and Marie Devlin’s personalities within the inhibiting, repressive sexual mores of the time; overlapping relationships could get in the way, too: questioned about mushroom loves leading to hate (DOD45) Heaney felt that his need to find a rhyme had led to him overstate the situation. He talks rather of the ever painful business of disentangling required when one meets the love of one’s life! 

  • French actress Brigitte Bardot erupted onto British cinema screens in the late 1950s; 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;
  • suede: leather rubbed to produce a velvety nap;
  • flats: shorthand for ‘flat-heeled shoes’;
  • embankment: wall of earth or stone built higher than surrounding land;
  • hold your breath: be in a state of suspense or anticipation;
  • diaphragm: part of the thorax whose nerve-centre is particularly affected by the emotions (‘butterflies in the tummy’ idea);
  • backcloth: backdrop, painted scene at the back of a theatre stage;
  • tremulous: shaking, showing signs of shyness;
  • hawk: bird of prey;
  • hanging: suspended motionless;
  • deadly: lethal;
  • need: necessity, must;
  • collapse: bring to the point of nervous breakdown;
  • hunt: pursue, chase, track;
  • prey: the target of a hunt;
  • hold apart: keep ones distance
  • decorum: in keeping with good taste, propriety;
  • deploy: change the subject;
  • art: (pun) ’work produced by creative people’ and ‘skill’ (note the art of conversation);
  • juvenilia: a term applied to literary, musical or artistic works produced by authors during their youth refers here to immature experiences;
  • publish: make known;
  • puff: inflate;
  • chary: cautious, reluctant;
  • excited: eager, aroused;
  • thrush: small songbird, likely prey of a hawk;
  • thrilled to: enjoyed the pleasure of;
  • twilight: evening moments between daylight and darkness;
  • Heaney rings the changes of poetic pattern: here he chooses a 6-sextet format made up largely of hexameters with rhymes on the even lines and free verse on the odd creating a different music to the ear;
  • alliterated phrases: [k] classic decorum; crossed/ quiet; excited/ linked/ hawk; [t] regret it all too late; and triplets: dusk/ hung/ shook; mushroom/ puffed/ burst;
  • assonant effects, pairs: air/ friendly; sky/ diaphragm; swan/ swam; decorum/ deployed;
  • tremulous is repeated as best descriptor of the nervous thrill being experienced; emotional jitters;
  • the early rhythm mimics the regular unhurried pace of footsteps; the tremulous emotional dilemma that intrudes breaks 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;
  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
  • the music of the poem: eleven assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies;
  • the first sentence, for example, weaves together labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] and a cluster of plosives (alveolar [t][d], velar [k] [g]) alongside sibilant variants [s] [sh];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; interlabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ];  voiceless dental fricative  [θ]  as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as  in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in  yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ]   as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ]  as in ring/ ang

6 thoughts on “Twice Shy

  1. The embankment referred to would have been the walk along the River Lagan in Belfast as the poem dates to their student days.

    1. quite right, Stephen. It was the very first step in a very long and successful pairing that led in turn to a score of intimate love poems (and also a couple of downsides that left SH remorseful!).
      Best wishes, David Fawbert

      1. Thanks for the acknowledgement, David. It’s just that I felt the definition of “embankment”, while accurate, gave a false impression of a rural location for their walk, rather than urban. To me the mental image, given the “Bardot” reference, is a romantic one of the banks of the Seine, “Sous les ponts de Paris”! Belfast is not quite Paris, but in the eyes of a young man in love….?

        In general, though, I find your appreciations of the poems invaluable.

        Best wishes,


        1. Thanks for the kind words Steve.
          As a relative youngster who managed somehow to get into an early X rated Bardot film underage (SH and I are of an age!) I recall the impact her sexuality had on this side of the Channel.
          Whilst romantic images of les rives de Seine, Montmartre or Edith Piaf might have crossed SH’s mind, meeting Marie Devlin delivered the ‘coup de foudre’ he is hinting at in ‘Twicw Shy’ and for which his one examplar was the delectable Brigitte.
          PS By the way and out of interest what is your link to Seamus?

          1. Hi David –

            I am only a few years younger than you but I don’t think I ever saw Bardot in the flesh, on celluloid at least.

            I am English by birth but my wife is from Northern Ireland and we live in Ballymena not far from the Seamus Heaney Homeplace in Bellaghy. Perhaps you know it? We have visited several times and found it a wonderful experience to feel so close to the great man. His humanity shines out. We were listening to the recent BBC4 readings from Death of a Naturalist and felt in need of some clarification, which is how I came across your very helpful analyses. BTW the readings of the poems on the radio by actors bore no comparison to Heaney’s own available at the Homeplace.

            I am not as well-versed (!) In the poems as I would like to be, but as I continue to explore his work it is good to know I can turn to you for guidance.

            All the best,


          2. Hi David – I answered your query about my connection to Seamus Heaney but the message has not appeared in the thread. It was not particularly for general consumption, but if by chance it failed to get through, I would not want you to think I had rudely ignored the question. Best, Steve.

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