The poem is rich with imagery and emotion. The speaker, perhaps Sexton herself, reads into the painting and creates a loose, metaphorical story based around the movements of the tree, sky, sun, and stars. Readers are likely to interpret the events of ‘The Starry Night’ in different ways, especially the ending where the speaker reveals the way she wants to die.
Explore The Starry Night
‘The Starry Night’ by Anne Sexton is a beautiful and emotional depiction of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.
In the first lines of ‘The Starry Night,’ the speaker begins by referring to the town at the base of the painting and to the hair-like tree that dominates the left-hand side. She uses a great deal of figurative language to describe these sights and the stars around them. There is a refrain at the end of this stanza and the next that suggests a specific way the speaker would like to die. This isn’t detailed until the final stanza.
She also explores the movements in the sky and how they appear as a serpent, swallowing up the stars that are, perhaps, produced by the god-like sun. The final stanza describes how she wants to be swallowed by this same beast and taken into the sky without a “flag” or a “cry.”
You can read the full poem here.
Before reading ‘The Starry Night,’ readers will first encounter an epigraph that Sexton included before the text of the poem. It reads:
That does not keep me from having a terrible need of—shall I say the word—religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars.—Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother
In these lines, the poet cites a letter Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, about his painting practice and religious attitudes.
The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.
In the first lines of ‘The Starry Night,’ the speaker begins by stating that the “town does not exist.” This opening line is a striking one, meant to draw people in. This is known as a hook. It does its job, likely inspiring readers to continue on, hearing more about the details of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. There’s a “black-haired tree” in the foreground, the speaker notes. It is “like a drowned woman” that slips up “into the hot sky.” This is a wonderful description of a very specific part of the painting. The brush strokes Van Gogh used to create the black tree on the left-hand side of the image are described as hair-like as if a drowned woman’s hair was floating around underwater.
The night “boils,” the speaker says in the next lines, with “eleven stars.” By using “boils,” she evokes a feeling of heat as if it is about to reach its breaking point. The eleven prominent stars in the sky are overwhelming, doing more than enough to light the evening.
The refrain appears in the next lines. The speaker says, “Oh starry starry night! This is how / I want to die.” It’s unclear exactly what the speaker means with these lines until the final stanza. At this point, though, death is clearly on her mind. This is something that is hard to separate from the fact that both Anne Sexton and Van Gogh committed suicide.
It moves. They are all alive.
Even the moon bulges in its orange irons
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die:
When speaking about the stars and the night sky more broadly, the poet describes them as “alive.” There is movement everywhere, including in the moon, where it “bulges in its orange irons.” The next line is a curious example of a simile. It’s “like a god,” and it pushes “children…from its eye.” The poet may have been considering the smaller stars children of the sun, pushed, through the movement of the paint, away from the upper right-hand corner and into the rest of the painting.
The movement of the sky is described as an “old unseen serpent” in the following lines. It “swallows up the stars.” With a reference to a “serpent” and “god” in the same stanza, it’s interesting to consider the religious dynamic the poet may have been considering. There is a story of good and evil playing itself out.
into that rushing beast of the night,
It’s in the shorter third stanza that the speaker’s chosen manner of death is revealed. She wants to die as part of the “rushing beast of the night.” She’ll be sucked up by the “great dragon,” or consumed by the rushing colors and madness of the night, and “split from my life with no flag,” or no signal that she ever existed. She will disappear into the perfect chaos of the night with “no cry.”
Structure and Form
‘The Starry Night’ by Anne Sexton is a three-stanza poem that is divided into two sets of seven lines and one final quintain, or set of five lines. These lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, but they do contain numerous examples of half-rhymes and full rhymes. For example, “sky” and “die” in the first stanza and “die” and “eye” in the second stanza. Half rhymes like “eye” and “irons” also exist.
Throughout ‘The Starry Night,’ Sexton makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: This can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as lines six and seven of the first stanza.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “silent” and “stars” win line four of the first stanza and “town” and “tree” in lines one and two of the first stanza.
- Caesura: can be seen when the writer inserts a pause into the middle of a line of verse. For example, “The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars” and “It moves. They are all alive.”
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues a non-human creature, thing, or force with human characteristics. For example, “Even the moon bulges in its orange irons / to push children, like a god, from its eye.”
The purpose of this poem is to celebrate The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh while also alluding to the troubles the painter experienced in his life. The epigraph and imagery from the poem hint at religion and a classic story of good and evil.
It’s someone who has a great appreciation for the painting The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh and is able to interpret the great emotions within it. Some readers might interpret the poem differently and consider the possibility that Van Gogh may have been the intended speaker of the text.
The tone is appreciation and revelatory as the speaker explores the beautiful movements and patterns the painting has to offer. There is a great deal of passion in their voice as well.
Sexton wrote this piece as a way of celebrating Van Gogh’s painting. She also used it to explore the deeper emotions that he felt while painting it and which she may have felt while looking at it.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Starry Night’ should also consider reading other Anne Sexton poems. For example:
- ‘Cinderella’ – tells the story of Cinderella while also engaging with the theme of feminism and focusing on a very different ending.
- ‘Courage’ – conveys the different ways in which a person can show courage, ranging from the seemingly insignificant to the much more heroic.
- ‘The Truth the Dead Know’ – an emotional poem that speaks about traditions and attitudes around death, as well as Sexton’s response to loss in her own life.