Analysis

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Last Updated on May 21, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 825

The diction and syntax of “The Colonel” are simple, straightforward, and concrete. The sentences are short and clipped, creating a matter-of-fact tone as the speaker describes the scene. There is little emotional inflection and minimal figurative language to distract from the facts, forcing readers to focus solely on the events...

(The entire section contains 825 words.)

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The diction and syntax of “The Colonel” are simple, straightforward, and concrete. The sentences are short and clipped, creating a matter-of-fact tone as the speaker describes the scene. There is little emotional inflection and minimal figurative language to distract from the facts, forcing readers to focus solely on the events as they unfold. The journalistic quality of the poem asks readers to bear witness to the atrocities being committed by the Salvadoran government. Forché refuses to romanticize or sanitize the bag of human ears, instead reporting its presence in a clinical, detached fashion and allowing the gruesome image to speak for itself.

Though Forché largely foregoes figurative language, she uses it occasionally to reinforce important themes and subtly indicate the speaker’s feelings.

  • In lines 4 and 5, the speaker says that the moon “swung bare on its black cord over the house.” This metaphor compares the moon to a lamp or other light source, implying that the speaker’s dinner with the colonel’s family will be illuminating. It also adds a staged or artificial quality to the scene, with the moon serving as a spotlight for the actors in the scene.
  • In lines 17 and 18, the speaker compares the severed ears to “dried peach halves” and then justifies her simile by claiming that “there [was] no other way” to describe them. This simile hints at the speaker’s shock and disgust as she attempts to make sense of the gruesome sight by comparing it to something familiar.
  • In lines 20, 24, and 25, the speaker personifies the ears by stating that one of them “came alive” in a glass of water and that they were able to “catch” the “scrap of [the colonel’s] voice.” The final line of the poem is a play on the idiomatic expression “keep an ear to the ground,” which indicates that someone is gathering information or awaiting news. This suggests that victims of the Salvadoran civil war—as represented by their severed ears—are still listening and waiting for justice.

The speaker reveals little of her thoughts or opinions, primarily acting as an observer and reporter. However, the poem offers several clues that conflate the speaker with Forché herself. The colonel indicates that the speaker is a poet and human rights advocate, just like Forché. The lack of personality or emotion exhibited by the speaker also fits Forché’s beliefs regarding her role as a witness poet: The point of the poem is not to sensationalize or romanticize violence by personalizing the experience to the speaker. By ending on an image of the severed ears “pressed to the ground,” the poem shifts its emphasis from the speaker’s experience and onto the ears and everything they represent.

The ears are described using concrete diction and are meant to be read literally, but they also have a symbolic purpose. Though the civil war was still in its early stages during Forché’s visit, it was already being talked about as a human rights disaster. The ears in “The Colonel” symbolize the consequences of war and the brutal lengths that the Salvadoran government went to in order to maintain power. This symbol of brutality contrasts the trappings of wealth that fill the colonel’s house, including “good wine” and “rack of lamb.” Though the bars on the windows and presence of the pistol betray the inherent danger of living in a country at war, the colonel is still able to enjoy a degree of normalcy thanks to his complicity in the violence. Forché only ever refers to the colonel by his title, indicating that, at least in the speaker’s eyes, he has traded his humanity in exchange for power.


Historical Context: El Salvador, Forché, and the Poetry of Witness

In 1979, tensions between the militant Salvadoran government and a coalition of leftist groups—which sought to address class inequality, among other concerns—resulted in an armed conflict. Over the next twelve years, El Salvador was ravaged by violence, with the Salvadoran government setting up Death Squads to execute suspected enemies of the state. Thousands of civilians died as a result of the war, with a majority having been killed by the government during its attempts to execute the leftist opposition. The US government, in a bid to prevent a leftist takeover that might have enabled a communist infiltration, sent financial aid to the Salvadoran government, enabling even further human rights atrocities.

In 1979, Carolyn Forché traveled to El Salvador with Amnesty International as a human rights advocate. During her trip, she witnessed the effect that the violent and corrupt Salvadoran government had on its people. Forché’s experiences abroad informed her approach to writing, which she and others began calling the Poetry of Witness. Witness poets seek to confront and preserve accounts of historical atrocities lest they be forgotten or ignored. Beginning with The Country Between Us, Forché has devoted her career as a poet to documenting trauma and confronting readers with difficult truths about the world.

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