Twice Shy by Seamus Heaney is a poetic story about a presumably young couple that take a walk by a calm river one spring evening. The couple, having been taught ‘to wait’ by their juvenilia, are highly excited and anxious as they spend time together on this romantic occasion. The poem consists of five stanzas, all of similar length with a regular rhyme scheme. The poet utilizes numerous poetic devices through the poem, such as similes, metaphors and his choice of words, in order to create a captivating tale from the poem’s beginning to middle to end. The title of the poem appears to be the second half of the old saying, ‘Once bitten, twice shy’, and hints that the boy and the girl in the poem are being particularly careful of their behaviour thanks to some mistakes they have made in the past which they do not want to repeat.
The setting is establish and the characters are introduced early in the opening stanza, showing Heaney’s precise structuring of the poem, wasting no time to tell his tale. The girl is said to be wearing a scarf and suede flats and this first sentence of the poem by itself offers a lot of information. Already, Heaney reveals that the air outside is cool and sheds light on what the girl is wearing in the space of just twelve words, which is a good example of the succinctness Heaney and perhaps all well-known poets have. The fact that she wants to appear fashionable, yet sensible at the same time is contrasting, which is reflected in her mixed emotions later on.
The poem is told in the first-person, so that we are given the male figure’s perspective of the story. This is interesting as it puts the reader in the position of one of the characters and includes the reader in the story. In the first stanza, the word ‘walk’ is used twice, perhaps to clarify using the male’s voice that all they will be doing this evening is walking and nothing else. However, it is ambiguous at this point with regard to where this walk will lead to, which brings us back to the paradoxical way the girl is dressed.
This may be another implication of the uncertain intentions of both the girl and the boy, and it may also be Heaney’s way of tempting the reader to continue reading in the hopes of finding out more. The fact that the girl came with him for friendly talk is endearing and this certain charm about both of them is yet another way of relating to the reader and attracting the reader to read more.
Lines 7 to 12 elaborate on the basic information we are given in the first stanza. What Heaney does from this point onwards is educate the reader about the central idea of the poem, that is, the feelings of a young person in love. Traffic and the sky are personified as they both are ‘tense’ and ‘holding their breath’. The objective of this is to create tension and let the reader relate these ideas to the couple holding back their emotions and almost cannot wait any longer to relase them. Traffic is a particularly distinctive simile as it relates to the boy and the girl waiting for a green light, some sort of sign indicating that they can proceed.
Henaey then writes: ‘Dusk hung like a backcloth That shook where a swan swam, Tremulous as a hawk Hanging deadly, calm’ and here, the poet uses a backcloth, a swan and a hawk to further demonstrate the key sentiments the boy and the girl are feeling. The backcloth dramatizes the setting as it would on a stage, but also makes the characters more colourful in front of a shady background.
The swan and the hawk are personified skilfully by Heaney to denote the gentleness and the calmness that the couple are presenting in front of each other, but also the anxiety and the fear they have in their minds. Heaney’s fast-changing diction paints a vivid picture as he alternates from cadence to tremulousness using the words, ‘tense’, then ‘hung’, then ‘shook’, then ‘swan’, then ‘hawk’, then ‘hanging’, then ‘deadly’, lastly followed by ‘calm’. The use of consonance and cacophony with the words, ‘shook’, ‘swan’ and ‘swam’ also is a sign of the couple’s worry.