What is the irony in the poem "The Starry Night" by Anne Sexton?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In order to understand the irony in Anne Sexton's poem, an appreciation of the background of the poet and poem is necessary. Inspired by Vincent van Gogh's painting called "The Starry Night, " Sexton's poem of the same name  is fascinating.   Infusing her poem with the themes of death, fire, color, and power, Sexton puts words to van Gogh's painting, blending the voices of the poet and artist.

Van Gogh's 1889 painting depicts the view from his sanitarium window.  Painting from memory, he portrays  a dark night with eleven glowing stars blazing in the sky.  His scene is both frenetic and peaceful: the night radiant with stars;  the moon's eyes glowing with fire; movement all around;  yet the town below appears calm and empty.

Sexton, often depressed and unhappy in her own life, wanted to die.  She attempted suicide more than once, finally succeeding in 1974,  in her garage dead from  carbon monxide poisoning.   Similarly, van Gogh, just as depressed and miserable, shot himself in the stomach.  Thus, the death of the poet and artist creates an irony of situation.

The poem begins with a the artist reading a note he had written to his brother. With free verse, the poet uses van Gogh's voice to ready the reader for the search for a connection to nature and then death.  In Sexton's response to van Gogh, the first stanza observes the painting and that  "the town does not exist."  This vacant town is portrayed with a colorful simile:

...where one black-haired trees slips

up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.

Ironically, the water death leads the reader toward the utlimate desire of the poet when she declares,  "This is how/ I want to die." This line is repeated at the conclusion of the second stanza but ending with a colon awaiting the description of anticipated death. Then, the third stanza offers up the detailed picture of how the speaker wants "to die."

Sexton relates her life to the famous painting. Using poetic elements, she expresses the basic theme of dying and going to a better place.   From the blended voices of these two artists who yearn for death to the visages of the ghostly town, sadly irony abounds. 

Read the study guide:
The Starry Night

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