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Essays to Warm a New England Heart

`THE tradition of valuing the rural life over the life of city or court,'' writes the poet Donald Hall in one of the 22 essays collected in ``Here at Eagle Pond,'' ``is as ancient as human history. COUNTRY is an ethical idea: a place of solitude, meditation withdrawal, and honest feeling, as opposed to the courtly life of power or the market life of greed.'' In these half-right sentences, Hall sets out his theme: the nature of rural New England. He's right in defining ``country'' as ``an ethical idea.'' But the implication that all courtly and market life is unethical is so broad as to do violence to reality.

And therein lies one of the challenges to anyone who undertakes to write personal essays, that most rewarding and exasperating of literary forms. In order to capture the essence of the subject, the essayist must sometimes stake out clear contrasts between it and other things. But like a mare in a milkshed, there's not much space to turn around: The essay form leaves little room for explanation. Hence the resort to generalization and stereotype.

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The mark of a good essayist - and Hall, whose collection called ``New and Old Poems'' also appears this year, is a first-rate craftsman - is how well he works within the genre's constraints.

Despite his occasional over-compressions, Hall is a real professional. True, he sometimes skates dangerously close to nostalgia, as in his recollections of the Glenwood wood range that still heats his ancestral 19th-century farmhouse in Danbury, N.H., where (after teaching for years at the University of Michigan) he now relishes life as a full-time freelancer. But his eye for the phony is sharp and sometimes witty: His not-quite-tongue-in-cheek essay titled ``Reasons for Hating Vermont'' contrasts the ``real people'' of his adopted state with the Bostonians and New Yorkers who flock to neighboring Vermont to live in ``decorator barns.''

Yet just when you think the wit is taking over, Hall draws a firm bead on his philosophical point. ``Nostalgia without history,'' he writes at the end of his Vermont essay, ``is a decorative fraud.'' It is, in fact, the sense of history that pervades these essays. What he is questioning, especially in the lengthy piece titled ``Rusticus'' that provides the book's intellectual anchor, are the historical roots of Yankee mentality. Among his answers: a connection to place so strong that people remain in rural New England against such odds as winter, black flies, and low wages.

As with poetry, however, it is finally not ideas alone but the skills of language that make essays work. Hall has a formidable quiver of skills. His is a deft eye for description, as when he notes of an old sap house that ``rot feathered the timbers up from the ground. ...'' He brings the musicality of poetry to his prose: ``On the same frosty morning,'' he observes, ``late hollyhocks sag blown brown rotten trumpets from spindly stalks.'' And, of course, he laces the essays with the vivid exaggerations of Yankee humor: ``It got so cold last week that Ansel saw two hound dogs putting jumper cables on a jackrabbit.''

Taken together, these talents make fine reading. His poignant essay about the diamond-wedding anniversary of a hundred-year-old couple (``The Embrace of Old Age'') is a masterpiece of literary control. Add to this the handsome design of this boxed book, illustrated with Thomas W. Nason woodcuts from the collection of the Boston Public Library, and this volume becomes an elegant gift for readers who, liking New England, also demand real artistry of form and substance.

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