Depression was a predominant aspect of Anne Sexton’s life at the time she viewed Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night painting. Her harsh, dark, depressive connotations towards life were thoroughly reflected in her poem “The Starry Night” through the effective use of imagery, contrasts, and symbolism to exemplify her perceptions of existence, her feelings of slipping, and her dominant desire to split from a depressive life. Her depression is reflected through the use of imagery pertaining to water, leading to an inference as to her preferred method of dying: drowning.
To exist is to have life, be real, breathe, live, and survive. It is to be in motion, alive, and full of energy. In the poem, Anne Sexton relays to us that “[t]he town does not exist…,” meaning the town does not have life, is dying or is dead, does not breathe, live, or survive. She further continues, “[t]he town is silent…,” emphasizing the fact that the town is void of energy and dead – if something is dead, it cannot move or make noise. The Starry Night painting supports this fact because it shows the town to be in darkness, which symbolizes death or absence of life. The town is also barely noticeable in the painting because it occupies only a small area. It is portrayed to not have much importance compared to the rest of the painting. This perception of a town contradicts the general perception of a town; a town is supposed to be full of life and energy, support life, and be in constant motion – a town is supposed to exist. On the other hand, Sexton’s perception of the night sky is that it is full of life as she has suggested in the poem by the phrase “[i]t moves. They are all alive.” The bright white and yellow sky in Van Gogh’s painting supports this idea because the sky is more noticeable than the town, just like something lively and energetic is more noticeable than something dead and inactive. The night sky generally is not supposed to breathe, live, or survive, although it is known to be pretty. It is still and, as such, it is considered not to be alive or full of energy. Sexton shows this contrast between the town and the night sky in her poem through symbolism: the town is a symbol of herself during her state of depression – lifeless, unresponsive, empty, dead, and extinct. She goes through life not knowing what is going on around her. The night sky, on the other hand, is a symbol of all the lives surrounding her – alert, vibrant, energetic, and lively. In the painting, there is a massive white swirl, like wind in the sky. The wind symbolizes an ocean wave in Sexton’s poem with the expression “old, unseen serpent swallows.” Sexton is conveying to us that the serpent is the ocean wave. The serpent has just caught her and is slowly slipping her underwater. This symbolizes her first state of depression – her depression is silently suffocating her.
To convey to us the concept of her slipping away, Sexton wrote “… [town exists] where one black-haired tree slips up….” In this phrase, she tells us that despite the fact that she is alive, only a part of her lives. The parts of her that still exist are her physical body and her literature; her mind and thoughts have already slipped away from her physical body. Van Gogh’s painting supports Sexton’s phrase by portraying a tree, which Sexton believes to be the hair of “a drowned woman” because the hair is sticking up as it would on a person who is drowning. The hair is also dark in colour; dark colours are often thought of as evil or pertaining to bad luck. For example, if a black cat crosses an individual’s path in North America, it symbolizes bad luck for the individual. In the poem, there is also a sense of change in Sexton’s tone between when she existed and when she slipped away. When she existed, all of her imagery seemed to focus on darkness, as seen in the phrase “…dark-haired….” Once she started slipping away, her imagery switched to focus on brightness, as supported by the following words and phrases: hot, stars, moon, “orange irons,” and god. These words are normally associated with hope, relief, and happiness, therefore implying that Sexton was glad she was slipping away and about to die since that would rid her of depression. Anne Sexton also uses a metaphor “…moon…like a god…” in which she compares the moon to a god. She believes that the moon will act like a god and take her away from this Earth, her problems, and her depression. Sexton wanted God’s help – she was looking for God; however, since God is invisible, Sexton acts as if the moon is God because it is the brightest and most noticeable feature in the night sky. It is also easier to pray to a god that is visible since it is easy to communicate with something that is visible. This attitude further solidifies the fact that she wants to die into the night sky. She gives a sense of slipping away because prior to depression, she never thought of the moon as anything more than a bright circle in the sky; now, during her depression, she thinks of it as something to be honored and worshipped, and something that will help her. She is already in her second stage of depression as seen in the poem through the words “…into that rushing beast of the night….” The beast is represented by the wind in Van Gogh’s painting and an ocean wave in Sexton’s poem. The beast is submerging her and drowning her, bringing her one step closer to splitting away from her life on Earth.
“…to split from my life…”: Anne Sexton wants to die. She can only escape from this Earth by dying. Likewise when viewing the Starry Night painting, there is a sense of the town escaping into the night sky. The town’s lights are so small in size and brightness compared to the size and brightness of the night sky’s lights that it seems as if the lights from the night sky are slowly swallowing up the lights from the town; it is as if the night sky is sucking up the town’s lights – the town’s life. Like Sexton conveyed that the town was a representation of herself, the town’s lights being sucked up is a representation of her life being sucked out of her. As for how she wants the life to be sucked out of her, she wrote: “… [t]his is how I want to die…with no flag, no belly, no cry.” She wants to die quietly without anybody noticing or with no fanfare, courage, or call for help. She also says that the “night boils” which, when connected with the symbolism of the night sky, conveys that people around her will keep going about their lives while she dies and breaks away from this Earth. To them it is as if nothing has happened. The painting also conveys this message through the wind – wind comes and goes just like people come and go from the Earth. Just like the passing wind, Sexton will be forgotten soon after her death. She wants to die peacefully, and she tells us this by implying that she wants to die into the night sky. However, there is also a lot of imagery pertaining to drowning versus dying into the night sky. Drowning is generally known to be one of the crudest suicide methods because of the agony it causes to the victim. This is shown in the poem through phrases such as “black-haired” (black is seen as evil or unlucky); “drowned woman” (the woman is Anne Sexton); boils (sounds torturous); “sucked up” (shows she has no value for life if she wants to be sucked up by an animal); and, serpent, beast, and dragon (ugly and symbolic of evil). On the other hand, dying into the night sky sounds very peaceful and comforting as is shown by phrases such as “hot sky”, silent, stars, moon, and “orange irons.” The fact that Sexton compared dying by drowning and dying into the night sky seemed absurd because something so peaceful is seen as something so brutal in Sexton’s mind during the time she was in depression. This shows how she really thought of the world surrounding her; to her, even the most pleasant, prettiest things in life were seen as horrible and repulsive. Her final stage of depression is emphasized through the phrase “…sucked up by that great dragon…,” the dragon being a symbol of wind in the painting and an ocean wave in the poem. Sexton believes, as is seen through this phrase, that the only way for her to be rid of her depression is to die and split from this Earth, this body, this soul. When Sexton is sucked up, the dragon has drowned her and taken her soul away – the dragon has killed her.
As is implied throughout the poem, Anne Sexton wants to drown and end her life of depression through three phases: exist, slips, and split. Her symbolism conveyed that the town was a symbol of herself; the night sky, lives surrounding her; the moon, God. Furthermore, her continued idea of light versus dark and life versus death represented various stages of her depression, and her imagery pertaining to a drowned woman gave a glimpse as to her longing for death and preferred method of dying. The poem’s connection to Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night reinforced inferences made about the poem and about the idea of drowning that is present throughout “The Starry Night.”