"The Starry Night" begins with an epigraph: a quotation from one of the painter Vincent Van Gogh's many letters to his beloved brother Theo. In it, Van Gogh says that when he feels himself "having a terrible need of [...] religion," he "go[es] out at night to paint the stars."
That line will feel significant to anyone familiar with perhaps the most famous of Van Gogh's works, a painting called—you guessed it—"The Starry Night." This picture, a swirling night landscape lit by blazing stars, clearly inspired this poem. And the quotation from Van Gogh's letters right up top suggests that Van Gogh's life inspired this poem, too.
In other words, this poem will respond both to Van Gogh's beloved painting and to the feelings that Van Gogh recorded in both his visual art and his writings. Many of those feelings were painful ones: Van Gogh suffered from severe mental illness and often felt deeply alone. Searching for "religion" in the beauty of nature and art was one way he tried to find meaning, connection, and consolation.
The very existence of this poem, in turn, might suggest that art really can help people to connect: to share powerful experiences, to feel less alone. Though Van Gogh himself never lived to see how famous and beloved his paintings would become, his artwork has survived for generations, touching countless later viewers—including fellow artists like Anne Sexton.
All this is important to a reading of this poem because of the ambiguous identity of its speaker. There's more than one possibility here:
- The speaker could be Van Gogh himself, immersed in painting a real-life starry night, and longing for freedom from his pain.
- Or the speaker could be a later art-lover, looking at Van Gogh's painting and feeling what Van Gogh felt.
There's no way to say for sure which of these interpretations is right—and that's exactly the point. That uncertainty suggests that art allows powerful experiences to cross the boundaries between one person and another, helping people to feel connected. That connection adds an important undercurrent of "religion" to this poem's portrait of an isolated speaker who longs to die.