Yes, it's been said before, but let's say it again: writing lives on the life writers pack into their writing. Get only a little life into your poetry or prose, and your writing will soon starve, dwindle, and die. Get a lot of life into your poetry or prose, and your writing may live forever.
The life writing captures may be the personality of the writer, whether that be Emily Dickinson's timid boldness:
I am nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody too?
There's a pair of us—don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.
—or Trollope's wry satire of himself as Mr. Pollock, a "heavyweight sporting literary gentleman," who wakes at dawn, writes for three hours, then goes fox hunting:
...all the world declared he was as ignorant of hunting as any tailor. He could ride, or when he couldn't ride he could tumble....But few knew of the sad misfortunes which poor Pollock sometimes encountered;—the muddy ditches in which he was left; the despair with which he would stand by his unfortunate horse when the poor brute could no longer move...
Or it may be the vigor of the world the writing describes, here a storm painted by Daniel Defoe:
... the night after it blew a dreadful storm...about midnight the noise was very dreadful, what with the roaring of the sea, and of the wind, intermixed with the firing of guns for help from the ships, the cries of the seamen and people on shore, and, which was worse, the cries of those which were driven on shore by the tempest and dashed in pieces.
—or a young woman painted by Balzac:
As she washed her hands again and again in the cold spring water that roughened and reddened the skin, she looked down at her pretty rounded arms and wondered what her cousin did to have hands so soft and white, and nails so shapely. She put on a new pair of stockings and her best shoes, and she laced herself carefully without passing over a single eyelet hole. For the first time in her life, she wished to look her best...
The life in writing pushes up from the page as palpable energy that engages us, awakes our imaginations, directs our attention, makes us see, hear, touch, taste, and smell the world we've been born into. Sixteen years ago I sat at my mother's bedside as she lay dying and re-read David Copperfield. Dickens' life-packed writing nourished my spirit:
He was a dreadful old man to look at, in a filthy flannel waistcoat, and smelling terribly of rum. His bedstead, covered with a tumbled and ragged piece of patchwork, was in the den he had come from, where another little window showed a prospect of stinging nettles, and a lame donkey.
"Oh, what do you want?" grinned this old man, in a fierce, monotonous whine. "Oh, my eyes and limbs, what do you want? Oh, my lungs and liver, what do you want? Oh, goroo, goroo!
The Iliad has lived longer, by several millennia, than most writing, and no wonder. Homer crams every line and every page of its twenty-four books with vibrant life, even though, or perhaps because, he often paints gruesome death—here that of Pedaios:
Meges Phyleides, the master spearman,
closing with him, hit his nape; the point
clove through his tongue's root and against his teeth.
Biting cold bronze he fell into the dust.
Reading Robert Fitzgerald's magnificent verse translation one recent night, I came upon a few pages in Book XII so bursting with life that I whooped in amazement. About one hundred and thirty lines into the Book, Homer describes how the Trojans have driven the Greeks (Akhaians) back to the earthworks they've built as a last defense before their beached ships. If the Trojans get through the log-studded wall, they'll be able to burn the Greek ships, leaving Agamemnon and his allies no way to escape bloody annihilation.
What struck me first was Homer's clarity, his movie-like realism. The Trojan Asios, for instance, drove his chariot "left around the ships to a place where the Akhaians were withdrawing chariots and horses from the plain":
Here he swerved for the wall and found the gates
of planking with great bolts as yet unshut;
men held them open to admit and save
stray fugitives from battle. Straight ahead
he drove his team, while after him his men
ran yelling—for they thought the Akhaians could not
hold, but had to fall back on the ships.
Their hope, however, was "all a delusion," for Asios and his troops found their way blocked by two Lapithian spearmen, Polypoites and Leonteus, who, says Homer, were as "tough as the wargod." The two heroic warriors stood just outside the tall gates and held their ground—
that tower on high hills, enduring wind
and rain through all their days, with roots deep down,
tenacious of the earth.
Such natural similes are common in Homer; in Book IV, for example, he refers to swarms of attacking troops as "big waves [running] under a freshening west wind." On the other hand, pages may go by with one or none. Here, only twelve lines later, he again describes the two mighty men with a simile. Now they are not oaks, but wild boars:
Think of two savage boars in a mountain place
awaiting a loud rabble of dogs and men:
they swing their heads from side to side and rip
through underbrush, snapping the twigs off short,
with a sharp noise of gnashing tusks
until some hunter makes the kill. Just so
the bright bronze breastplates clanged...
Seventeen lines later he describes the two mighty Lipithians with a third simile; now they're hornets:
...like agile-waisted hornets
or bees who build their hives on a stony road—
hornets that will not leave their homes but wait
for hunters, and in fury defend their young—
these two men, two men only, at the gate
will not give way.
In between these last two similes Homer slips in a third: the Greeks and Trojans pelt each other with stones that:
...shower to earth like snow
driven by a stormwind thick and fast
in a murky veil swept over pastureland.
The blind poet must have loved the image because two pages later, again describing the falling stones, he expands the simile with obvious affection:
flakes of snow that come down thick and fast
on a winter day when Zeus...
...lulls the winds
and sifts white flakes in stillness hour by hour
until hilltop and foreland are all hid
as are the farmers' meadowlands and fields,
while snow comes down over the hoary sea,
on harbors and on shores. Though running surf
repel it, all things else are muffled white,
weighed down by snow from heaven...
In the middle of these few pages Homer leaves similes to paint a word picture as vivid as any I know in literature: an eagle flying high above the battlefield:
...in its claws
a huge snake, red as blood, live and jerking,
full of fight; it doubled on itself
and struck the captor's chest and throat. At this
the eagle in its agony let go
and veered away screaming downwind. The snake
fell in the mass of troops, and Trojans shuddered
to see the rippling thing lie in their midst.
I bet you're whooping now! This is writing that grabs your guts and won't let go: a chariot charge at a closing gate, stopped by two warriors stout as oaks, savage as boars, and as angry as hornets; stones falling like snow; a snake writhing in an eagle's claws. Listen to the words: "planking...great bolts...tenacious of earth...white flakes in stillness...hoary sea...huge snake, red as blood...agony...veered away screaming...shuddered." None are big words or la-di-da words, but each one hits home like a well-aimed punch. Homer's overall scene is a human battlefield, but he amplifies and enriches his vision and ours by drawing into his words the energy of oak trees, wild boars, buzzing hornets, snowy pastures, a screaming eagle and an unforgettable crimson snake. Writing this bold, this beautiful, this full of life, will never die.