A Poetry Lover’s Guide to Re-Watching “Felicity”

This '90s classic is packed with both college drama and classic verse

Felicity, played by Keri Russell, looks at a shelf of books in a college library
Screenshot from “Felicity”

In honor of National Poetry Month, I’m watching a lot of TV. Classic ‘90s teen TV, to be precise. Felicity, starring Keri Russell, is not just an ode to bookish girls with curly Marie Howe hair. It’s not just a love letter to college life in NYC, and of course, the tangly love triangle. It’s not just the show that single-handedly convinced me to consider enveloping myself in a wardrobe composed solely of sweaters. Felicity is also, though I didn’t realize it at the time, the show that made me a poet.

Well, maybe. I don’t remember Felicity turning me towards poetry, but here are the facts: Felicity is one of my favorite TV shows of all time, and when I started recently re-watching it, I was shocked to discover that the first season prominently features classic poetry. It’s remarkable (and a little heartbreaking) that I forgot, because—and here’s the final piece of evidence—I ended up becoming a poet, who wrote a heartbroken book.

For those of you who missed Felicity, here’s the gist: on the day of her graduation, our Stanford-bound protagonist musters up the courage to ask her high school crush to sign her yearbook. Here’s what he writes: “I’ve watched you for four years. Always wondered what you were like. What was going on in your mind…I should’ve just asked you, but I never asked you. So now, four years later, I don’t even know you, but I admire you.”

Poetry in English: An Anthology, ed. M.L. Rosenthal
Buy the book

After reading this bombshell, the stuff of every invisible girl’s fantasies, Felicity makes the first impulsive decision of her completely mapped-out life. She drops out of Stanford, and follows the boy of her dreams to college in the Big Apple. So in the spirit of our heroine’s semi-delusional attempt to stalk her high school crush, who is essentially a stranger, from coast to coast—and in defense of the retrospective ways that unliterary endeavors, like TV-watching, can unknowingly influence your future—I’ve obsessively combed through all 22 episodes of season one to pick out the six most poetry-heavy scenes and pair them with these iconic college moments.

For those reading along, the poetry textbook used by Felicity, Ben, and Julie, as seen in several episodes throughout season one, is the first edition of Poetry in English: An Anthology by M. L. Rosenthal.

When You’re Fully Crying in Your First Class of College…Read Emerson.

Smack in the middle of getting that awkward photo taken for her freshman ID card, Felicity runs into Ben (played perfectly by Scott Speedman) for the first time. Not only is he with another girl, whom he smooches right on the spot, Ben doesn’t really remember Felicity. The flash of the camera snaps. Cue the realization that you just moved across the country and shifted your entire life’s trajectory for a boy who doesn’t even know your dang name. Felicity mulls over this humiliation while she sits in her first class of her university career—fittingly, an introduction to poetry class. Her professor, Mr. Rogalsky, is bespeckled, bowtied, and sporting a checkered three-piece suit. He opens the class with the best reference to an 18th century Neoclassical poet that you will ever come across in the history of teen television: “When we get through with him, Alexander Pope will have become your favorite diminutive, Catholic, English hunchback poet in the entire world.” Tears pool in Felicity’s eyes as she mulls over the recklessness of her questionable life choices, and the camera pans across Emerson’s “Experience,” a poem that precedes the essay with the same title. This work grapples with the state of confusion that we often live in, and how to gain perspective and comfort in these moments. The poem is written in all caps in chalk on an old-school blackboard:

“Experience” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

The lords of life, the lords of life,—
I saw them pass,
In their own guise,
Like and unlike

Read the rest here.  

When the Hot Boy Who Never Noticed You in High School Needs You to Help Him with Homework (and His Chin Dimple Is Inescapable)…Read Dickinson.

Ben and Felicity end up in the same poetry class, and shocker—he needs help with his assignments. It’s every wordy girl’s nerdiest dream: reciting poetry with your burning crush on the floor of your cozy dorm. Is there a more romantically literary way to bust out of the friend zone than explicating Emily Dickinson? As Ben reads the first line of the poem out loud to Felicity, and earnestly tries to decipher its meaning with an adorable amount of misguided effort, he suddenly looks down and asks: “How come you never went to any parties in high school?” It’s that quintessential adolescent moment, when the popular guy unknowingly admits that he has been quietly cataloguing the quiet girl all along. Who better than Emily Dickinson, the Queen of Unrequitedness and Longing, to capture the intimate-sweetness of this scene, with a poem on the impossibility of love.

“I cannot live with You” by Emily Dickinson

I cannot live with You—
It would be Life—
And Life is over there—
Behind the Shelf

Read the rest here.

Or for more analysis, read this close reading.

When You’ve Royally Effed Up Your Love Life & Have Become the Unreliable Narrator of Your Own Story…Read Browning.

As Ben and Felicity grow closer, and a sliver of hope appears like a delusive moon that this shipping might come to fruition, Felicity blows it—big time. While working on their respective poetry papers on Robert Browning, Felicity offers to run Ben’s essay through her spell-checker (using a floppy disk! I heart the ‘90s!). Instead of simply correcting Ben’s there, they’re, and theirs, Felicity can’t help herself. In one of the most dramatic plot points of the season, she rewrites Ben’s paper, without telling him. When Professor Rogalsky accuses Ben of plagiarizing, Ben is furious with Felicity, but stubbornly refuses to let her confess to her crime. Instead, Ben must come before a makeshift English Department tribunal to get grilled on his paper. He almost pulls it off, surprisingly triumphing over interrogations on dramatic irony and a quote on William Bosworth. But when asked to compare and contrast Browning’s “My Last Duchess” with “Count Gismond,” Ben finally faces his literary limitations, and admits he didn’t write the paper. Felicity is standing outside the classroom the entire time, until she bursts through the door to admit her guilt, in order to save the innocent boy, who is too prideful to be saved. “My Last Duchess” is Browning’s most anthologized poem, and like “Count Gismond,” employs unreliable narrators. Art imitates art imitating life, as “Count Gismond” can also be read as vindication of innocence.

“My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

Read the rest here.

“Count Gismond” by Robert Browning

Christ God who savest man, save most
Of men Count Gismond who saved me!
Count Gauthier, when he chose his post,
Chose time and place and company

Read the rest here.

After You’ve Broken Your Dream Boy’s Trust, Ruined Any Romantic Chances With Him, and Oh Yeah, Almost Got Him Expelled…Read Auden.

After the fallout of the cheating scandal, Ben is, rightfully, Icy AF with Felicity and will hardly speak to her. So she ambushes him as he emerges from the subway and tries to apologize to him for the umpteenth time. It’s a heartbreaking scene, and a tribute to Keri Russell’s incredible acting, as her voice breaks to hold back from crying, when she says: “The last thing I ever wanted to do was to make you feel less than amazing.” Felicity is absolutely dejected, and as one of the main storytelling devices used in the series, she records audio-letters (on a cassette tape recorder!) that she sends to her former French tutor, Sally (fun factoid: if the voice sounds familiar, it’s Janeane Garofalo). These voice-overs are prominently featured with Sarah McLachlan-eque musical accompaniment at the end of many episodes to hype up the emotional crescendos. When Sally “writes” back, she tells Felicity that her situation reminds her of a poem with this central question: “Is it harder to count on someone, or to know you’re the one being counted on?” Sally quotes the famous line of one of the most famous Auden poems: “If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me.” It’s the perfectly prescribed poem for anyone in need of consolation from the desperation of one-way love.

“The More Loving One” by W.H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

Read the rest here.

(Or, listen to astrophysicist Janna Levin read it here.)

When It’s Finals Time and You Can’t Help But Succumb to the Sexy Magic of Library Vibes….Read Keats.

It’s exam week at the fictional University of NY (fun factoid: NYU denied the WB-turned-CW permission to use its name) and this episode is very heavy on Keats, with shoutouts to “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode to Psyche,” and “The Eve of St. Agnes.” At this point in the season, Ben has warmed back up to Felicity, partially because he needs her help to pass the class. It’s exactly 12:28:53 pm in the Library Lounge, and there are 31 hours and 32 minutes until finals. “Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music:— Do I wake or sleep?” Felicity reads the last couplet out loud, and explains to Ben that the poem is about contradictions; how fantasy and dreams can distract you from painful realities. “And you get all this from just reading it, you don’t even have to figure it out?” Ben smiles his Ben-smile. Then, he and Felicity engage in an epic intellectual debate of what constitutes greatness:

“Poetry is the greatest,” says Felicity.

“Well…pizza is the greatest,” counters Ben, without skipping a beat.

Touché, Ben. Touché.

Hours later, in the Silent Reading Room, it’s 3:17:48 AM. This time, it’s Ben, whispering Keats out loud to Felicity, the poem blooms in closed-caption on the screen: “The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine, / The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves. / Darkling I listen; and, for many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death…” As Keats becomes intoxicated by summer flowers in the dark, Felicity is also catching The Feels for Ben again. He is so close to her, she can practically count his eyelashes.

Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk

Read the rest here.

When Your Best Friend Nabs the Boy of Your Dream…Read Whitman.

Plot twist: just as Ben and Felicity’s love prospects are looking up again, Ben gets with Felicity’s best friend, Julie. Avalanching more salt into Felicity’s heart, Julie also becomes Ben’s go-to Poetry Study Buddy. “I stop somewhere waiting for you.” Ben is uncharacteristically animated, reciting this line to Julie in her dorm room, “Walt Whitman rocks,” he says. “I thought you hated poetry?” Julie asks. “Yeah, that’s because I never understand it, but Walt here, actually wrote some stuff that I get. Listen.” At this point, he is on the bed with Julie, reading the opening stanza out loud, with one desk light glowing in the background. Julie is rendered totally helpless under Ben’s spell—as are the viewers, though we’re not always sure why. My favorite TV critic, The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, said it best in a tweet: “I’m not even into guys like Ben. Except for Ben.” So what is it about him? Besides the annoying-yet-effective combo of good looks and unavailability, why is Ben Covington so compelling? Here’s a theory: it’s not just the chin dimple or squinty eyes or even his mumbly-magnetism. Maybe it’s the poetry? There’s a hidden literary storyline here as Ben undergoes his own arc, not just as a love interest—but a smitten reader. He’s a bona fide lover of poetry in his own right. All it took was a little Whitman.

Song of Myself by Walt Whitman

1
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Read the rest here.

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