In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to whom is Prufrock speaking? How do you know?

Expert Answers
booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To begin with, poetry (and all art) speaks to each person differently, based upon his/her experiences and interpretation.  I cannot say this is the only way to see this poem; this is my interpretation. When something leaves the artist's hands, it takes on a life of its own, speaking to many in countless, different ways.

(Note: I think "she" or "her" refers to Prufrock's mistress; "you" and "us" refers to his wife.)

In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," I think that the author is speaking to his wife, and that they have been "together" a long time, but married more in "name," and less in "heart."

The poem begins with, "Let us go then, you and I," when Prufrock wants to go to empty places, but perhaps meaningful because his wife is with him.

In "to lead you to a question," he tells her not to ask, "What is it?" as she might if she thought he was upset about something.  If he has been unfaithful and wants to fix things, he resists here having to explain.

He says she will have time to put on her [brave?] face for those she meets—preparing to meet the public on the arm of her husband. If, in the past, he was with another woman, going to these places now could be difficult. His words are hopeful when he says "there will be time for you and me."

He seems regretful of misspent time they could/should have spent together.  He repeats "there is time" so often that he might have thought before that there would always be an opportunity to make up for the lost time, but now knows that time, too, has passed.

When he speaks of women with "braceleted arms," that "wrap around their shawls," and a woman "settling a pillow by her head," he may refer to a mistress. The same woman saying, "That is not what I meant, at all" may be when she tells him there was nothing between them. Was this the moment of his enlightenment? At his age, with her words, he perhaps realizes that he truly shares nothing with this "other" woman. He looks in a new way at his marriage and all the missed opportunities between them, wondering "do they have time?"

"Lazarus...from the dead" could refer to this awakening to his terrible, wasted state. "Having wept and prayed" may point to the moment he decides to bare his soul to "you" (his wife) in the poem: confessing. Should he have done so sooner—"among some talk of you and me"?

The "magic lantern" illuminates the sham his life is. He wonders if his mistress had said earlier, "that's not what I meant," would he have done things the same way, or come to his senses sooner?

He is older now. He feels age upon him, and even imagines death nearby. As he thinks about repairing his marriage at this late date, he is filled with apprehension.  What should he do? What can he still do? Is there still time to reach out to her?

His reference to the mermaids singing might be an allusion to the mythological sirens that could drive a man mad with their songs, leading them to their doom—perhaps they refer to his affair as a younger man; now he does not believe they will sing to him. Is he finally beyond their "songs" of temptation?

At the end, he says that they ("we") have both lived empty (and very different) dreams for all these years. When he suggests they ("we") are to be woken by human voices and then drown, perhaps he is afraid that when he speaks the truth that the illusion of the marriage they have had will be totally obliterated, and "they" (their marriage) will be beyond repair.

mrs-campbell eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a good question, because you would expect a love song to be addressed to the person that you love; that is, really, the entire point.  You want to pledge your love and devotion, and usually, it is written so that the other person can know how you feel.  However, keep this in mind:  usually, we like telling someone how we feel when we are fairly confident in ourselves and that our message of love won't be rejected.  If you have ever had a super crush on someone who didn't return your feelings, you know how embarrassing it would be to reveal your heart and soul to them, only to have them say, "Wow.  That's nice.  But I just like you as a friend."  So, when we aren't sure of our affections being returned, we normally just pine away in our miserable love, all by ourselves.

In the poem, Prufrock addresses a mysterious reader, known only as "you":  "Let us go then, you and I," and we really don't know who this "you" is.  We do know that it probably isn't his loved one; later in the poem, he refers to his loved one, of whom he wants to ask a question, as "her."  So, the "her" is the loved one, and not the same person as the "you" he is addressing the poem to.

A couple possibilities:  He could be addressing the poem to himself, in sort of a back-and-forth dialogue where he is trying to convince himself to go talk to her.  This would kind-of be like you, scared to go to a party where she is, standing outside the door saying to yourself, "Just go in, you idiot!  Just do it!"  Prufrock could be doing that in this poem--having a little pep talk with his own mind, fears, and insecurities. The other option is a good friend of his who is his confidant, who he feels comfortable sharing his true feelings with.  It is to this confidant that he admits that he feels like "a fool," and expresses his insecurities about his appearances and chances with the girl.

I hope that those thoughts help to get you started; good luck!

Doug Stuva eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Eliot's "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock" may be a dramatic monologue.  The speaker speaks to a silent listener.  That's part of the definition of a dramatic monologue.  The enotes reference page on dramatic monologues says the following:

M. H. Abrams notes the following three features of the dramatic monologue:

  1. A single person, who is patently not the poet, utters the speech that makes up the whole of the poem, in a specific situation at a critical moment […].
  2. This person addresses and interacts with one or more other people; but we know of the auditors' presence, and what they say and do, only from clues in the discourse of the single speaker.
  3. The main principle controlling the poet's choice and formulation of what the lyric speaker says is to reveal to the reader, in a way that enhances its interest, the speaker's temperament and character.[1]

All of the above fits "Prufrock."  The speaker is in a dramatic situation (on his way to see a woman, though he never makes it), talks to a silent listener, and reveals characterization about himself in the process:  that's what the poem is about. 

At the same time, some consider the poem to be an interior monologue.  If this is the case, the speaker is carrying on a conversation with himself.  This is representative of the alienation of modern man.  The alienated do not have or need someone to talk to.  If this is the case, then Prufrock is talking to himself, which adds to the pathos of the work.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There is no real answer to this question - we are left to infer the identity of the audience to whom this poem is addressed. I think #2 offers us the most likely solutions - this is an internal monologue of someone who is addressing himself, or he is referring to a friend with whom he is able to share his feelings. Either way, this does not detract from the greatness of this poem that still gets us thinking.

epollock | Student

Since it is a dramatic monologue, the speaker is speaking to a listener though we do not know the identity of the listener. All we know is that there is a "you" and that the person is being addressed in a cordial way as when the speaker says "we." It does suggest at the end that the speaker and listener are both old.

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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

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