(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Starry Night” shows Sexton’s identification with another tortured and suicidal artist, Vincent van Gogh. The short, free-verse poem begins with an epigraph from one of van Gogh’s letters to his brother. “That does not keep me from having a terrible need of—shall I say the word—religion,” van Gogh wrote. “Then I go out at night to paint the stars.” Sexton used epigraphs from a variety of works to begin her poems, and the epigraphs are often of major importance, pointing to a main theme of the poem that might otherwise be overlooked. Here she is indicating that she shares not only the mental imbalance, suicidal tendencies, and artistic nature of the Dutch artist but also his unsatisfied desire for the spiritual.

When van Gogh wrote the letter to his brother, he was painting the masterpiece Starry Night on the Rhone, which is described in the poem. The painting captures the night sky in blues and blacks, with a swirl of violent orange representing the moon, and burning yellow-white stars. One would expect a peaceful scene from the title, but this painting is intensely disquieting. The movement seems to be a great rush skyward, the sleeping town beneath the sky unconscious of this spiraling of all nature toward infinity. Sexton sees this painting as a reflection of her own death wish. The dark tree at the edge of the painting is described as “black-haired”—Sexton was a brunette—and it “slips/ up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.” To make her meaning clearer, she continues, “This is how/ I want to die.”

The poem interprets the painting as presenting a nature that is animate and hostile. Nevertheless, the picture attracts the speaker, because nature’s brute force promises death, release from the burden of self. Sexton sees the central moon image in the painting as a great dragon that will suck her up into its being. She desires, she says, “to split/ from my life with no flag,/ no belly,/ no cry”—to merge silently and painlessly with the infinite. The images may suggest not a rediscovery of religion but a terrifying substitute for it. Part of the appeal of this poem lies in the vivid interpretation of the painting and in the kinship the reader sees between Sexton and van Gogh.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Furst, Arthur. Anne Sexton: The Last Summer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Hall, Caroline King Barnard. Anne Sexton. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

McClatchy, J. D. Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

McGowan, Philip. Anne Sexton and Middle Generation Poetry: The Geography of Grief. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.

Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Anne Sexton: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Sexton, Linda Gray, and Lois Ames, eds. Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Swiontkowski, Gale. Imagining Incest: Sexton, Plath, Rich, and Olds on Life with Daddy. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2003.

Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Critical Essays on Anne Sexton. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.