The Annotated “Vincent”


Words and Music by Don McLean

Starry, starry night.[1]

Paint your palette blue and grey,[2]

Look out on a summer’s day,[3]

With eyes that know the darkness in my soul.

Shadows on the hills,[4]

Sketch the trees and the daffodils,

Catch the breeze and the winter chills,

In colors on the snowy linen land.[5]


Now I understand what you tried to say to me,

How you suffered for your sanity,[6]

How you tried to set them free.

They would not listen, they did not know how.[7]

Perhaps they’ll listen now.[8]

Starry, starry night.[9]

Flaming flowers that brightly blaze,[10]

Swirling clouds in violet haze,

Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue.[11]

Colors changing hue, morning field of amber grain,

Weathered faces lined in pain,

Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand.[12]


Now I understand what you tried to say to me,

How you suffered for your sanity,

How you tried to set them free.

They would not listen, they did not know how.

Perhaps they’ll listen now.[13]


For they could not love you,

But still your love was true.[14]

And when no hope was left in sight

On that starry, starry night,[15]

You took your life, as lovers often do.[16]

But I could have told you, Vincent,

This world was never meant for one

As beautiful as you.[17]


Starry, starry night.

Portraits hung in empty halls,[18]

Frameless head on nameless walls,[19]

With eyes that watch the world and can’t forget.[20]

Like the strangers that you’ve met,

The ragged men in the ragged clothes,[21]

The silver thorn of bloody rose,

Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow.[22]


Now I think I know what you tried to say to me,

How you suffered for your sanity,

How you tried to set them free.[23]

They would not listen, they’re not listening still.

Perhaps they never will…[24]

[1] The title of one of Van Gogh’s last and best-known paintings.

[2] These are the predominant colours of the ‘palette’ of the painting ‘The Starry Night’.

[3] The mention of a summer’s day is a contrast to the previous line, which informs the reader that the song is in reference to Van Gogh and his popular work, ‘The Starry Night’, which is visually, a work which depicts not a day, and not even a locale in the season of summer, but a blue-hued night during what seems to be autumn or winter; perhaps this juxtaposition is intended as a transition to ease the reader—the listener—into the body of the song, which begins after this line to take on a bleaker, melancholia of tone.

[4] The image of darkness—in ones soul and on the hills in the landscape one is in, or the landscape in the painting, which the listener or reader or viewer is indeed drawn into—completes the transition from introduction to complete concept in the ballad; the eyes that are mentioned seem to be the peculiar stars which feature so prominently in the painting, and appear to be eyes of some sort, viewing a village in the darkness below, with shadows covering the hills nearby; perhaps the eyes—the stars—are the only ones able to discern the village’s—the reader’s or listener’s—sadness and underlying, actual woe; this tells us the subject of the whole song, which is an underlying, persistent longing and sadness borne of that longing—a longing to be happy or obtain whatever has been lost or never gained, just as the villagers below the stars long to reach the heavens in which the stars dwell.

[5] Another juxtaposition of opposing sentimentalities, the sentiment felt by an artist interpreting the nature of the world around them is seemingly pleasant, uplifting, and enlightening, while what the artist simultaneously or perhaps more intensely feels is the disparity—the coolness—carried by the breeze and winter chills of life; when the harshness of reality is felt or caught by the artist the best way to express the feeling is in empathetic colors on the comfort of soft, linen land—a land created by the artist as an escape.

[6] The sanity being suffered for is indicative of the reality—the normalcy, the coherency—given us all by our visions, what we see; the eyes show what is true, and the artist gives to us visuals—Van Gogh gives us the visual of the sleeping village under the swirling stars in his ‘The Starry Night’—yet the artist must suffer and will inherently suffer in order to obtain the clarity of those visions—a clarity of representation. While the veracity of what art shows us is questionable, that what is being shown is borne of true—or sane—sensation, experience, is undoubted. The narrator of this song has just come to realize and appreciate the suffering Van Gogh has undergone just to present this tranquil visual—this famous, and misunderstood painting—which is now understood seemingly completely by the narrator. Perhaps the narrator relates to the artist’s suffering but could not realize there was a sacrifice made to obtain the sanity—the rawness and coherency—of the painting’s subject.

[7] Relating to the previous lines, and as previously annotated, the narrator is now stating that the public—society—has failed continually to grasp the nature of the production of a work of art; much torment has been endured by the artist in a sacrificial—creation is martyrdom—way, yet the recipient of the artwork—the public—has chosen to pass over understanding and empathy and opted instead for the comfort of basking in ignorance of this artistic devotion which produced such emotionally-vibrant, culturally-transcendent work.

[8] The narrator proffers the anticipation that their words will cause the reader or listener to finally understand what so many have failed to appreciate in ‘The Starry Night’.

[9] Again, reference to the painting, and perhaps also, to the period of night, or darkness—ignorance—that much of the world has of late been in regarding the recognition of Vincent’s struggle—a struggle all artists must undergo in order to connect to life and thereby express its experience.

[10] The image of a universal symbol of beauty, innocence, and perfection being set ablaze—whether by the colors of the artist’s palette or by the symbol itself, both in protest—is a strong cue to repentance; a changing of ways and of thought is sought by the destruction of something which represents so much beauty and positivity, particularly by flames…too, a symbol, of rebirth as in the phoenix combusting then once again rising from its ashes; this parallels how the narrator intends to affect a change of appreciation.

[11] A direct allusion to the artist Van Gogh by way of one of the most striking of his physical attributes, his eyes. Simultaneously, it is a cultural reference to a style of decoration which was in vogue in Van Gogh’s era, that of Asiatic art and design, the china may well refer to objets d’art directly imported or copied from those in China, or to the objet itself: a piece of porcelain, which in the days of Van Gogh often featured a white background with a foreground of minute grotesques in blue, upon china or porcelain, mirroring the Oriental style of the day; also, Van Gogh is known to have been quite inspired by Asiatic art, particularly Japanese woodcuts, and in fact, ‘The Starry Night’ actually derives from a famed, pre-existing Japanese woodcut which features a very similar scene; similarly, the exotic relevance of China and the East and its metaphor in relation to Van Goghs’ eyes may express the exotic and distant nature of the artist himself.

[12] These last few lines all intimate some transition, not necessarily only a transition within the structure of the lyric and its concept, but a transition in the things described; it shows the persistence and necessity of change to take the lame, overlooked and forgotten—the miserable—and deliver them to the comfort of acceptance and recognition—the very recognition that the narrator wishes to evoke in the listener or reader. Likewise, acceptance, too; it also serves to show that artist is a savior, which may be an acknowledgement of the fact that Van Gogh has since his death been debated as being a saint of some sort—literally and symbolically; his art was therapeutic for him as it presently is for many who encounter it; being a healer in this sense, Van Gogh is the artist whose loving hand performs miracles.

[13] This reprisal of the same chorus as earlier expresses the same notions as when it was utilized before; refer to footnotes 7 to 9.

[14] No one would ever appreciate the artist—Van Gogh personally, or the artist as an archetype; the artist, recognizing this, does not let the ignorance of society foil his or her intentions, but persists in attempting to work magic, miracles, and dreams to save the human race.

[15] ‘The Starry Night’ is a painting which captures for posterity—and perhaps in an effort to ensure future hope—the culmination of Van Gogh’s desolation; it is a desolation of life in general, of unrequited love, and of more potently, unrequited efforts at salvation; the painting serves as a sort of suicide note, and while Van Gogh did ultimately take his own life, it was not immediately after completing this painting, but quite some time after, so there is an inaccuracy in the notions of these lines, but it may be overlooked in an attempt to arrive at the greater cause: that Van Gogh has—whether intentionally or subconsciously—preserved a fragment of his suffering, a veritable piece of his death, for the world to view in its own agony and hopefully to overcome it; the painting is a message; the starry, starry night is the time of emotional and intellectual twilight—the apex of self-actualization and self realization—from which no one may turn away or revert back to; the night time is the darkness of finality which has now encompassed all—all villagers sleeping forevermore below, all hopes and dreams which will have by now been attained or will never be met.

[16] The taking of life is doubly literal—for Van Gogh did commit suicide—and an allusion of literary and cultural significance; Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ features a similar epigram which is used as refrain, stating that everyone ultimately kills the thing they love in every way that can be possible in every context of interpretation; the artist—archetype and Van Gogh—takes his own life and places it in open, public view, only to have it misinterpreted, or unnoticed entirely, a true tragedy; the artist take his life as in a selection of it and affords it some place painstakingly in a moment of effort and time—a gift to progress; the artist takes his life in one attempt to regain dignity and respect, takes it back to perhaps rework it before relinquishing it again; likewise, when one love another—thing, person, idea, place—they take their life and mould it continually to conform to the pleasant pattern of that thing, person, idea, or place—Van Gogh has done this with ‘The Starry Night’, loving the view it records, he conforms his skill, artistry, and expression to the landscape’s—his melancholy’s—pleasant revelations.

[17] The narrator affirms that he or she has been able all along to inform Vincent van Gogh that the world is an atmosphere where his genius will never be capable of being accepted—not any time soon at least; the narrator here shows a compassion for the artist as archetype and the artist as historical personage; these lines are an utter veneration of the saintly Van Gogh—the divine touch that belongs to the deity which is called an artist; the narrator shows approval for Van Gogh’s efforts, and acknowledgement of the beauty of his skills.

[18] Evidence, perhaps, that society no longer values art the way it once did and presently should; museums—those treasure-troves of art—are now virtually empty, their hallowed halls of mysteries and explanations abandoned by a public eager to have its consumptions dumbed-down.

[19] The paintings and offerings of artists are not revered or acknowledged by the frames or decorations of societies’ interpretations; the walls on which art—particularly Van Gogh’s art—is displayed are essentially the anonymous shells which contain artworks that have become anonymous commodities; the frame, or luster of artistic expression is gone, and therewith, the presence and identity—the force—or, names of the walls on which such expressions hang.

[20] The artwork, in a sense, looks out patiently yet with disappointment and silence on the world which neglects it; the subjects of portraits go unvisited and unstudied, namely, the kind doctors whose lives Van Gogh preserved in his portraits of them.

[21] An allusion to the contemporaries of Van Gogh who, vagabonds such as he himself was, were viewed as ragged and radical by society, and with this stereotyping, Van Gogh could sympathize and relate; also, the ragged men are the artists who came after Van Gogh that share his ideals—the universal ideals of art as a liberal mode of change and therapy—and now stand before his paintings; also, or instead, the very people Van Gogh actually painted.

[22] That which plagues the lifes of the villagers who are sleeping in the village below the sky in ‘The Starry Night’ lies all around them; the sphere of negative and hostile influence revolves around ones own center; yet Van Gogh, as artist, can vanquish such evils and cause it to shatter—the stabbing needles or thorns of misfortune—and lie on the cold, unforgiving snow of the world outside; as such, that which makes the pain—the silver thorn—is silver, or of merit in some sense, because pain can be quite a pleasure in its ability to inspire art; the bloody rose is the romantic heart of society, which is universally pierced by the double-edged thorn of unrequited things and beautiful, artful inspiration; the snow, or cold trouble of society, is virgin in that it has never experienced the penetration of any opposite force, it has not known the opposite of what it is—pain—being pleasure, it has only known that pain.

[23] A variation of the refrain, this final version, too, declares the narrator’s recognition that Van Gogh—that the archetypal artist—has made a vast attempt to save the world through artistic expression; whether the salvation was an alternative to suffering misfortune and broken heartedness, or whether it was emancipation from the constraints of an ignorant and judgmental society through the escape of art, Van Gogh tried to free his peers and his successors.

[24] Here the narrator becomes very final in asserting that the efforts of artists and Van Gogh are in vain, yet juxtaposes this with an intimation of uncertainty by use of the word perhaps, the narrator proffers a possible scenario which subtly forces the listener or reader to give up hope in trying to change his or her world at large; the message is to change oneself, to understand that art, indeed, changes oneself; the ignorant society has not grasped the concept of ‘The Starry Night’ and it is likely they will not; change can only come about if society permits itself to give audience to new ideas and expressions—to art—but they are still not allowing themselves to be open-minded, and it is suffocating them, and simultaneously, suffocating artists like Van Gogh, whose work goes unnoticed for what it truly has to say to each one of us uniquely and individually.