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“The Starry Night” is a confessional poem by Anne Sexton that reflects her suffering mind and her struggles with her suicidal tendencies. The poem appears to deconstruct the well-known painting of Vincent Van Gogh on the surface level but it gives us an insight into the manic episodes of the poet. Van Gogh himself suffered from psychotic episodes while painting this masterpiece.
About the Poet
Anne Sexton is an American poet who writes confessional poetry. She was awarded with the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry in 1967. Anne suffered from chronic bipolar disorder and she was suggested to write poetry to relieve her mental strain.
The poem consists of three stanzas, written in first-person perspective. The poetic persona and the speaker of the poem is the poet herself.
Summary and Analysis
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
Analysis of Epigraph
The Epigraph to the poem, “The Starry Night” by Sexton contains a quote from one of the letters Vincent Van Gogh sent to his brother. Van Gogh often wrote to his brother in which he described his approach towards a certain painting and his beliefs and motifs related to it. This quote he discusses his view on religion.
Van Gogh writes that he is not in a terrible need of religion. A person turns towards religion when there is no other hope left for him, when they are going through some trauma or emotional issues. Gogh later states that he then goes out at night to paint the stars. It suggests that for Vincent, painting is a religious practice that also heals the person.
The town does not exist except where one black-haired tree slips up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The poem begins as the speaker analyses the painting and explains that the town in the painting does not exist. The black-haired tree appears to look like a woman who is drowning in the hot sky.
The first stanza of the poem deconstructs the famous painting of Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night. The painting is appreciated by the speaker in parts that delve into the deeper aspects and details of the painting.
In the first line of the poem, the speaker claims how the town that is painted in the painting does not exist in real life. It only exists in the painting. Although the town is identified as a recollection of the painter’s homeland in Dutch, it still stands as an imaginary town.
The last two lines of this stanza reveal the suicidal tendencies that the poet was struggling with when she wrote the poem. Sexton reflects these dark thoughts through her interpretation of the painting. The cypress tree in the painting appears to the poet as black hair of a woman who is supposedly drowning into the hot sky.
The sky is seen as the sea as the poet mentions “drowning”. The sky is also described to be hot, in the painting, the sky is filled with stars and sun, so according to the poet, the stars and the sun are heating up the sky that is liquid.
This refers to the punishment of a vicious soul in hell where the sinning soul is drowned in boiling hot liquid.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars. Oh starry starry night! This is how I want to die.
The town, although non-existent, is silent and the night is boiling by the eleven stars in the night sky. The speaker cries to the beauty of the starry night and how she wishes to float in the boiling sky along with the stars, that is how she wants to die.
The second stanza talks about the night that is shown in the painting. The town is completely silent because of the night. The night boils, as mentioned in the previous stanza, the night sky is boiled by the stars.
The poet mentions the number of the stars as seven, although in the painting there are six stars, the sun, and the venus. Here, Venus is also counted as a star since it is known as the morning star. According to researchers, this Venus was visible at the dawn of 1889 when Gogh painted this piece.
The speaker is attracted towards the boiling sky. The stars that boil the sky, according to the speaker, makes the speaker also want to float in the sky along with those sky, despite the burning temperature of the sky. The speaker says she wants to die in this night sky. This reveals the suicidal thoughts of the speaker.
It moves. They are all alive. Even the moon bulges in its orange irons to push children, like a god, from its eye.
But the stars are not dead, they are alive as they are moving. Even the moon disperses an orangish tint in the night sky that appears to be as powerful as God. The light makes children look away out of fear.
In these lines, the poet states that the stars are all alive and moving. Although it’s a painting, the stars are not still and lifeless as the poet thought earlier. They are moving in a circular motion.
In the next lines, the poet states that even the moon bulges in its orange irons. This line says that in the painting, the moon emits an orange hue in the night sky. This orangish hue is associated with fear by the poet.
The colour shows the warmth of the moon that makes children hide their eyes out of fear. It pushes them away like it is as powerful as a God.
In Van Gogh’s painting, the moon is painted as a waning crescent that represents the perfect time to rest and regenerate. But some records say that the night Van Gogh painted this piece, the moon was waning gibbous, that is between full moon and half moon.
The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars. Oh starry starry night! This is how I want to die:
The swirls in the night sky are described as an ancient serpent that owns the sky and swallows up all the stars one by one, and everything that comes in its way. The poet again cries by the beauty of the starry night and claims this is how she wants to die.
Here, line 10 the old unseen serpent refers to the expressionist swirls that can be seen in the night sky of the painting. These swirls are seen as a giant serpent by the speaker. An ancient serpent that lives in the sea and swallows up the stars one by one.
The next two lines here are a refrain that repeats the earlier lines with an exception of the colon at the end that elaborates the idea further into the next stanza.
into that rushing beast of the night, sucked up by that great dragon, to split
She wants to die into that rushing beast of the night, that is the old serpent. She wants to get sucked up by the great dragon. Here, the poet describes the swirls as both the old serpent and the great dragon.
There, the poet continues her thought of wanting to die into the rushing beast of the night. The poet is again referring to the swirls that are in the night sky of the painting. These swirls are now described as a beast that sucks up everything that comes in its way.
The poet states the beast as the great dragon that sucks up the stars and everything around it. The poet wants to get sucked up by the great dragon. The concept of the beast/dragon can also describe a black hole that the poet is referring to.
The “great dragon” is believed to be an allusion of the already existing interpretation of a historian named Meyer Schapiro. In his book, he interpreted The Starry Night and analysed its apocalyptic theme.
from my life with no flag, no belly, no cry.
The poet wants to split from her life by getting swallowed up by the great dragon, leaving no trace of her existence behind. She wants a quick and painless death.
In these last lines, the poet confesses her wish to have a quick death. The poet wishes to end her life and leave no remnants of her body. The speaker wants to get sucked up by the dragon to split from her life with no flag. Here, “no flag” refers to the body that is left behind after one’s death. The poet does not want to leave any trace of her existence.
The last two lines describe that she wants her death to be as painless as it can be. “No belly” might refer to no guts, as in the lack of courage that the poet faces to end her own life and to bear the pain of death. Therefore, the poet wants the dragon to swallow her up for a quick and painless death.