How do people respond to adversity? What are the cultural and historical effects of racial warfare? Written by Rita Dove (1952-Present), "Parsley" (1983) is a poem based on actual events that occurred in the 1930s in the Dominican Republic. As ordered by the leader at the time, people were forced to say a word, and if they mispronounced it, they were shot dead. Rita Dove represents this historically atrocious period in history using vivid imagery, symbolism, and various literary devices to bring to light the damages of racial oppression, stereotyping, and human cruelty.

Parsley Parsley

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Table of contents

    "Parsley" Overview

    Here is an overview of the poem "Parsley" for you to revise!




    Rita Dove




    Divided into two parts: The Cane Fields and The Palace


    Lyric poem



    Literary devices

    Enjambment, allusion, repetition


    Fear, grief, and violence


    While violence can be a response to grief and sorrow, it also causes pain and meaningless death and cannot replace lost love.

    Narration in "Parsley"

    “Parsley” provides an understanding of key figures important to the historical events in the Dominican Republic in 1937. Readers gain insight into the possible internal thoughts and experiences of the Haitian sugar cane farm workers and the military dictator Rafael Trujillo. Poet Rita Dove uses location, or place, to indicate the perspective of narration.

    Section one, titled “The Cane Fields,” is told in first-person narration from the perspective of the laborers under military control. Using key diction, Dove expresses the unique circumstance, terrorization, and utter fear the sugar cane workers experience.

    First-person narration: when the narrator, the persona sharing the story, also takes part in the story. First-person narration uses the pronouns "I," "we," "me," "my," "us," and "ours."

    Diction: the specific choice of words the writer employs to communicate the tone and overall attitude towards a subject or character.

    The diction that connotes the negative emotion of fear and a sense of violence includes words like “haunt” (line 4), “screaming,” “punches” (line 7), and “blood” (line 17). The violence is clear, as is the fear the collective group feels as they “lie down” (line 7) on the ground while being yelled at continuously. They cut the sugar cane stalks that seem to haunt them and endlessly rise from “out of the swamp” (line 9). The collective first-person narrator feels hopeless and unable to escape the reality of abuse and fear, even experiencing the fright “in [their] dreams” (line 16). The sugar cane stalks are both their labor and a symbol of their oppression, as they work endless hours under unimaginable conditions for someone else's profit.

    Parsley, Sugar cane, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Fields of sugar cane waiting to be harvested.

    Section two, titled "The Palace," pivots over to a third-person narrator who shares with the audience the perspective of the cruel dictator. The dictator ordered the executions of Haitians based solely on their ability, or rather inability, to pronounce the word “parsley” correctly.

    Third-person narration: when the story is being shared via a person not involved in the actions or events but with knowledge of them. While the level of knowledge often varies, the pronouns used by a third-person narrator are "they," "them," "him," and "her."

    Referred to as “El General” (line 13) within the poem, Trujillo’s heartless actions are inexcusable. However, Dove attempts to humanize this evil man by showing a more personal and vulnerable side of him.

    The reader sees the general’s pain over the death of his mother. The only solace and release from his own pain is to ‌cause pain to others. Thus, he resorts to the senseless hunting and killing of the Haitian sugar cane field workers who can not pronounce the word “perejil” (line 13) by rolling the “R” properly. In her attempt to help the audience understand the evil within the man, Dove uses diction like “paces” (line 30), “wonders" (line 30), and “startled” (line 65) to show a man reeling from the loss of his mother, the woman who raised him and gave his life direction. Now, in her absence, he seeks direction and an ending to his pain by harming others.

    In the Dominican Republic in 1937, a series of mass killings sanctioned by the military dictator occurred. On October 2, Rafael Trujillo ordered that any individual unable to pronounce correctly the Spanish word for parsley, "perejil," be shot to death. Trujillo deliberately chose the word because Haitians had a hard time rolling the "R" sound. They would pronounce the "R" sound as an "L." This mass genocide resulted in the deaths of over 20,000 Haitians and nearly wiped out the entire Haitian population in the Dominican Republic. Those that weren't murdered fled the Dominican Republic for safer territory.

    Main Ideas in "Parsley"

    The main idea and message in "Parsley" expresses the need to stop hate and senseless murder through understanding. While there is no true justification for the murders, Doves shows a man, El General, in immense anguish over the loss of his mother. She tries to humanize him for a moment and shows that his need or desire to cause pain to others stems from his emotional turmoil.

    Dove shows a cycle of interconnectivity where pain causes violence, and violence causes fear and more pain. Dove also surfaces the cruel and random ways racial oppression and discrimination cause mass destruction.

    Poem Analysis of "Parsley"

    Based on historical events, “Parsley” explores the causes and effects of violence. Using the mass murder of Haitians in the Dominican Republic in 1937 as inspiration, Dove explores cruelty by trying to humanize a man responsible for heartless executions and attempts to understand evil and prevent atrocities like this from recurring. Dove uses literary devices, imagery, and symbolism to enhance the meaning of her words.


    This poem's central meaning and inspiration are drawn from the background understanding and knowledge of the Parsley Massacre at Massacre River. President Rafael Trujillo is the central antagonist and the man responsible for virtually eliminating the entire Haitian population in the Dominican Republic. After assuming control of the Caribbean nation in 1930, he ruled for over 30 years until his assassination in 1961. Dove alludes to him and the murders he ordered to show the indifference of evil. The allusion, without directly mentioning the events or the dictator’s name, shows that these occurrences are all too commonplace and can happen again if others refuse to take action.

    Allusion: an indirect reference to a well-known person, place, thing, or historical event.

    Parsley, Dominican Republic, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the deaths of thousands of Haitians based on their ability to pronounce a single word. Many fled the country to avoid this fate.


    Throughout the poem, in both sections one and two, Dove uses enjambment to create suspense.

    Enjambment: the carrying over or trickling over of ideas from one line of poetry onto the next line without using end punctuation. The idea from one line remains incomplete and forces the reader to seek a syntactical conclusion and read on to the next line.

    Enjambment creates suspense and tension for the reader. In section one, from stanza one to stanza two, the collective speaking voice states, “Out of the swamp the cane appears / to haunt us, and we cut it down” (lines 3-4). Because the idea sits incomplete in stanza one, the reader feels an uneasy need to continue reading and is left in anticipation of the concluding idea.

    There is a parrot imitating springin the palace, its feathers parsley green. Out of the swamp the cane appearsto haunt us, and we cut it down. El General searches for a word; he is all the world there is. Like a parrot imitating spring..."

    (lines 1-6)

    Another instance of enjambment occurs in section two, “The Palace.”

    ...The generalpulls on his boots, he stomps toher room in the palace, the one without curtains, the one with a parrotin a brass ring. As he paces he wonders Who can I kill today. And for a moment the little knot of screamsis still."

    (lines 26-33)

    As El General walks back and forth, he contemplates who he will murder. This uncommon thought presented in a common manner underscores the atrocious act. Enjambment from lines 30 to 31 creates a slight pause in thought and highlights the shocking image. This break in continuous thought surfaces the tension in the society and culture of the 1937 Dominican Republic. The sugar cane cultivators were often wondering and worried about the same thing. However, the way El General simply wonders about it as a daily occurrence shows how inhumane he has become. The lives and deaths of thousands of innocent people are his entertainment and solace in the loneliness he feels after his mother’s death.


    Rita Dove also uses instances of repetition or refrain throughout the poem to emphasize the ever-present danger the farm workers experience.

    Refrain: a word, line, or part of a line repeated throughout the course of a poem. The repetition can be slightly altered each time and typically happens at the end of each stanza, although it can occur anywhere in the poem.

    Most notably, one of the most repeated phrases in the poem occurs in lines 3, 6, 12, and 16. The phrase “out of the swamp the cane appears” is a menacing line that expresses, through repetition, how the sugar cane farmers felt hounded and lived in fear of being killed. The line implies that terror is always waiting and stalking them. The sugar cane is a continuous worry for the farmers and one they can’t escape. This feeling parallels the incessant persecution and harsh punishment doled out to them for something as random as their ability to pronounce a word.


    Dove uses a healthy amount of imagery in her poem to help the reader visualize and experience the actions of the poem in new, unique, and intimate ways.

    Imagery: any type of description that appeals to the five senses. Visual imagery is a description that appeals to the sense of sight.

    Parsley, Parsley sprig, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The parsley plant, or rather the pronunciation of parsley, is an important and pervasive image within the poem.

    Dove includes many instances of visual imagery by implementing color descriptions. Frequently mentioning the color green, the poetic voice brings to mind the natural color of spring and the vibrant, lush green of parsley. The parrot, which is important to the meaning of the poem as a whole, has “parsley green” (line 2) feathers.

    Another poignant instance of visual imagery serves to curiously humanize El General. In section 2, as the man hears a voice similar to his mother’s voice call for him, he sheds a tear.


    calls out his name in a voice

    so like his mother’s, a startled tear

    splashes the tip of his right boot."

    (lines 63-66)

    The reader can visualize his pain and mourning. He is momentarily not a murdering fiend but a lonely man who misses the woman who raised and nurtured him. Her absence has perhaps made him a harsher man. Although his actions are inexcusable, readers are invited to empathize with him. He is misguided and blinded by his emotions.


    Dove uses symbolism in her poem to add depth and help the reader gain deeper insight into the underlying meaning of the poem.

    The Parrot

    The parrot is a prominent figure throughout the poem. Being a well-kept animal dining on pastries sitting in a castle, it represents wealth. However, the bright “feathers parsley green” (line 2) are a visual reminder of the very thing threatening their lives, the one simple word “parsley.” It is the embodiment of nature, but an animal out of its own habitat. The parrot is an example of imprisonment and enslavement, being caged and kept for someone else’s enjoyment.

    Parsley, A green parrot, StudySmarterFig. 4 - The vibrant green plumage of the parrot is memorable.

    The Sugar Cane

    Sugar cane is a crop, a commodity, and a nagging physical representation of the mental torment haunting the sugar cane farmers. The crop is inescapable, constantly growing, encroaching, and taking their efforts and wealth. Sugar cane is a difficult plant to cultivate and harvest. It often makes the plant owners or growers wealthy, but at the expense of the ones actually working the fields. This is certainly the case here, as one man stands in a palace feeding a bird pastries while the other individuals in the poem work in fear in the swamps.


    While parsley has a symbolism of its own and is often used as a token of remembrance, a sign of constancy and love, and a symbol of rebirth, what is most important in this poem is what it represents linguistically. The correct pronunciation of parsley in Spanish is literally a matter of life and death for the field workers. It shows a delineation of beliefs, respect for life, and in values. El General feels that the Haitians’ inability to pronounce the word correctly somehow deems them unworthy of life. This situation is a metaphor for other forms of racial profiling, discrimination, and subjugation based on human differences. The symbol of parsley represents the randomness and false justifications for human cruelty.

    Themes in "Parsley"

    The main theme in "Parsley" is violence. The question remains today: How effective is violence in controlling a group of individuals? While history has shown us violence and fear can be very effective, it is also extremely damaging to all parties involved for generations to come.

    The endless cycle of violence is doomed to be repeated until humanity can seek understanding and ways to help one another move forward without harming one another. "Parsley" surfaces the damaging consequences of racism, the often random ways and justifications humankind uses to identify people as "other," and the death and emotional scarring that can occur. Violence is often a response to pain but is damaging and cannot replace lost love or erase grief.

    Parsley - Key takeaways

    • "Parsley" is a lyric poem published in 1983 by poet Rita Dove.
    • "Parsley" is written in two sections and shows the perspective of the sugar cane workers living in fear and the man who ordered their deaths.
    • The poem is based on historical events in the Dominican Republic in 1937, known as the Parsley Massacre.
    • The themes in the poem are violence, fear, and pain and their cyclical connection.
    • Dove uses symbolism, visual imagery, enjambment, and allusion to add meaning to the words within the poem.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Parsley

    What is the message of "Parsley"? 

    The message of "Parsley" is the link between pain, violence, and fear must be broken. 

    What does the parrot symbolize in "Parsley"? 

    The parrot in "Parsley" symbolizes wealth, oppression, life, and death. 

    Who is the speaker in the poem "Parsley"?

    The speaker in "Parsley" is a first-person narrative voice sharing the perspective of the sugar cane workers and a third-person narrator sharing the perspective of El General. 

    Who wrote the poem "Parsley"?

    American writer Rita Dove wrote the poem "Parsley" and published it in 1983. 

    What is the poem "Parsley" about? 

    "Parsley" Is about the mass murder in the Dominican Republic in 1937 known as the Parsley Massacre when over 20,000 individuals were killed using their own language against them. 

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    Team Parsley Teachers

    • 13 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
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