The Starry Night

By Anne Sexton


“The Starry Night” by Anne Sexton is a profound exploration of personal suffering and cosmic beauty, inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s iconic painting of the same name. Anne Sexton, a pivotal figure in confessional poetry, often drew upon her own experiences and emotional struggles to craft deeply personal and revealing works. This poem is no exception, as it intertwines Sexton’s poignant introspections with the swirling, star-filled sky depicted by Van Gogh. 🌌

In this poem, published in her 1960 collection To Bedlam and Part Way Back, Sexton uses the backdrop of the night sky to delve into themes of loneliness, death, and the search for meaning. As a genre, confessional poetry is characterized by its frank and intimate disclosure of personal experiences, and Sexton’s work powerfully exemplifies these traits.

Meaning of The Starry Night

Opening section
The poem begins with a vivid description of the night sky, “alive with scribbled stars.” These lines set the tone for a universe that seems chaotic and bursting with energy, mirroring Sexton’s own tumultuous emotional state. She writes:

“The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.”

Mid section
In the middle stanzas, Sexton shifts from the cosmic to the personal, reflecting on her own place within the universe. She contemplates the madness of Van Gogh and her connection to it, musing:

“The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.”

Concluding section
The poem concludes with a somber acceptance of death and insignificance. Sexton juxtaposes her vision of the starry night against the backdrop of a mental hospital, signifying her own struggles with mental health:

“It does not care for me or anyone.
The night sky from the asylum, it swallowed him forever.”

Each section of the poem builds upon the next, weaving a tapestry of imagery that connects Sexton’s internal turmoil with the vast, indifferent universe.

In-depth Analysis

Each stanza of The Starry Night layers complex emotions with rich imagery, forming a complex critique of existence and art:

Stanza 1

  • Imagery: Describes the vibrant, chaotic energy of the stars.
  • Syntax and Diction: The choice of words like “alive” and “scribbled” evokes a sense of untamed, perhaps uncontrollable creativity and despair.

Stanza 2

  • Symbolism: The “black-haired tree” symbolizes death or rebirth, its shape resembling a figure rising into the atmosphere.
  • Figurative Language: Uses metaphor to compare the tree to a “drowned woman,” enhancing the theme of tragedy and struggle.

Stanza 3

  • Literary Techniques: Personification of the night sky, which “does not care,” emphasizing the theme of existential loneliness.
  • Syntax: The abrupt, short sentences mimic feelings of abruptness and finality in life and death.

Poetic Devices used in The Starry Night

DeviceExample from Poem
Alliteration“Starry starry” to emphasize the beauty and repetition in the night sky.
Simile“slips up like a drowned woman” comparing the tree’s ascent to a tragic, fluid motion.
Personification“The night boils with eleven stars” gives the night sky human-like activity.
MetaphorThe whole poem serves as an extended metaphor for inner turmoil through the image of the night sky.
Hyperbole“It does not care for me or anyone” exaggerates the personal insignificance in the vast universe.
SymbolismThe stars represent not only celestial objects but also points of hope, madness, and artistry.
AnaphoraRepeated use of “Oh” at the beginning of lines to convey emotional intensity.
AssonanceThe repeated ‘o’ sounds in “does not know” create a melancholic tone.
Onomatopoeia“Boils” to describe the action of the stars, adding a sense of turmoil.
IronyThe beauty of the starry night contrasts with the poet’s feelings of despair and isolation.

The Starry Night – FAQs

Q: What inspired Anne Sexton to write ‘The Starry Night’?
A: Anne Sexton was inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s painting “The Starry Night,” which she interprets through her personal lens of mental illness and existential reflection.

Q: How does Sexton’s personal history influence the poem?
A: Sexton’s struggles with depression and her own mental health journey profoundly shape the thematic content of the poem, particularly its focus on despair and searching for meaning.

Q: What is the significance of the ‘black-haired tree’ in the poem?
A: The ‘black-haired tree’ serves as a symbol of death and rebirth, bridging the gap between human suffering and the natural world.

Q: How does ‘The Starry Night’ reflect elements of confessional poetry?
A: The poem’s candid and personal tone, along with its exploration of personal trauma and existential angst, typifies the characteristics of confessional poetry.

The Starry Night Study Guide

Exercise: Identify and list all poetic devices used in the following verse of ‘The Starry Night’:

“The night sky from the asylum, it swallowed him forever.”


  • Personification: “The night sky… it swallowed him”
  • Symbolism: “The night sky” and “asylum” symbolize vastness and confinement, respectively.
  • Hyperbole: “Swallowed him forever” exaggerates the finality of oblivion.