The Starry Night by Anne Sexton and Vincent Van Gogh. “The Starry Night Anne Sexton and Vincent Van Gogh. Anne Sexton’s “The Starry Night” is an ekphrastic poem inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s masterpiece “Starry Night.” Both Sexton and van Gogh suffered from psychological disorders and underwent prolonged stays in mental hospitals. Their works are a form of catharsis: Sexton’s “writing, in fact, began as therapy” (Poetry Foundation), while van Gogh was at his most prolific during his stay at the asylum at Saint-Rémy, where he painted “Starry Night” (Dietrich). It can be said that Sexton uses words to paint a graphic picture, while van Gogh uses his painting to communicate without words. Sexton’s poem reflects van Gogh’s painting in its call for help, its tone and imagery.
Sexton’s poem echoes van Gogh’s graphic call for help. The poet and the artist suffered from suicidal tendencies and finally took their own lives. Van Gogh’s painting demonstrates his isolation and a desperate reaching out to the Heavens. Similarly, Sexton expresses her feelings of alienation from the world. Although the town depicted in the painting shows lights in some windows, Sexton begins her poem by emphatically asserting that, “The town does not exist” (1). The town’s silence expresses the world’s indifference to her pain. Significantly, the poet breaks the sentence “…This is how/ I want to die” (5-6, 11-12), so that the “I want to die” stands alone. This effectively highlights her wish to die and merge with van Gogh’s star-filled Heaven.
Sexton’s intense tone mirrors the passion of van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” The painting depicts “the fire that smoldered within” van Gogh (Dietrich). The canvas is in turmoil. Sexton’s poem also throbs with deep agitation: The sky is hot, “The night boils,” (…4). the stars are alive and move. “…the moon bulges…” (8) and gives birth to life. The poem echoes the painting’s hallucinatory tone with its hot, dramatic, unstable voice. Sexton’s liberal use of verbs like “boil,” “bulges,” “push,” “swallows,””split” and “sucked” demonstrate her inner turmoil. Except for the silence of the town, the poem depicts a world of turbulence. Sexton’s tone conveys the message that her starry night, like her inner life, is in a state of ferment.
Sexton’s poem is a feast of imagery. She matches the rich graphics of van Gogh’s poem with the skilful use of figurative language. Sexton makes van Gogh’s vibrant night a ravenous beast: “…that great dragon…” (14) which is to devour her. The thick, serpentine swirl of his brush becomes the “…old unseen serpent…” (10) which swallows the stars. Her words, “…in its orange irons” (8), conjure an image of the moon as a captive who is forced to give birth to the stars. The most striking image is that of the lone, black tree silhouetted in the foreground of van Gogh’s painting, which Sexton metaphorically compares to a “…drowned woman…” (3). Just as van Gogh’s tree reaches out to the Heavens for help, Sexton depicts herself as a lost woman seeking solace in the skies. All these images evoke an apocalyptic ambience of death and destruction.
Anne Sexton’s “The Starry Night” focuses on her obsession with suicide. The melancholy and loneliness which Vincent van Gogh expresses in “Starry Night” reverberates in Sexton’s poem. Both pieces serve to voice their creator’s anguished calls for aid. The painting and the poem convey the tortured workings of disturbed minds. Sexton’s intensity of tone and vivid imagery echo the dramatic graphics of van Gogh’s painting. Anne Sexton’s “The Starry Night” and Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night” express the same themes of agitation and melancholy through their respective mediums of canvas and words.
Blumer, Dietrich. “The Illness of Vincent van Gogh.” The American Journal of Psychiatry.
Vol. 159, No. 4. 2002. Web. 25 November 2012
Poetry Foundation. “Anne Sexton 1928-1974.” 2012. Web. 26 November 26, 2012