Indians used to accuse our fathers of speaking with a forked tongue, and I reckon they had their reasons, but I often think (in defense) it was partly because of our language, English, which is a tongue not only forked but also knived and ladled.

It's a chancy thing to tell what is meant, in this tongue we all inherit, and sometimes you can't say, especially in the work of our great poets, and yet that is a good thing, too.

We do know, somehow, when glory bursts, and this is the seal of art, that words fall short in commentary.

Still, we pay for glory by daily confusion:

"When I was a little girl, said an elegant woman beside me at a supper, "I heard somebody say that people who were dying got extreme unction, only I understood it as extra munction.

"And I never new that munction was, but I thought it was nice the dying got an extra helping of it."

"Then there is the bear, too," said a fellow. You know in that elegy of Gray's, he speaks of jewels lost in the underwater caves of the sea that nobody ever sees, and yet they are jewels as good as those in any royal crown.

"'Full many of gem of purest ray serene.

'The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear.'

"Well, there was a fellow who took that to mean a dark cave inhabitied by a creature called the ocean bear. Like a polar bear, only under water."

So we all laughed. But that's our lanuage for you.

So I went the hear "Tristan and Isolde" which the Washington Opera is putting on at the Kennedy Center, and lo and behold the second act looked very like a cave of ocean bear -- a blue island beneath a blue sea.

And what sweet bears were in it.

The composer, Wagner, as we all know was a very clever man as well as a superb artist, and after an overture fit for the gods he gives you a nice place in the first act for a little nap, which most of the audience (I noticed) took advantage of.

This permits one to be refreshed for the second act, which is one of the greatest glories of the theater.

What is munction? It is the thing Tristan got an extra ration of from Yseult (to eschew the German barbaric spelling of Wagner), and the whole theater sat transfixed as the lovers and on and on.

That ass, Nietzche, once concluded Wagner was a moral and artistic poseur.

Maybe that's too harsh -- Nietzche may not have been an ass, he may merely not have comprehended the dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear (as Wagner did) and may not have understood extra munction (as Tristan did).

Anyhow, I think you can sit through the first act without too much happening to you, but there is no known way to keep the heart from swelling in the second, and in the third act, if you aren't in heaven, I personally doubt you're ever going to get there.

You can quibble. Critics are paid to. But when the music starts, it starts, and God only knows where you find fellows bold enough to do any more than sit there dumb.

Tristan has had it, as you know, by the middle of the third act. But not before Ysecult is there. She goes on for quite a spell, and I thought at the time, God give every man such ocean bear.

But then only a few hours later I was at the funeral of my friend Annie, 91, and you now how that is, the mind is depressed and the images of the brain are mixed, so what you do is tune out a little and let sense come to you, not search for it.

Well before anything started the choir was singing and the lights were burning, a very good thing because Annie hated tardiness and was always on the early side herself.

Things struck me as being under controll and in good order and on time, which for her was right.

"See the streams of living waters," they were singing up front, and you know and I know that is the imperial Austrian Hymn, and Annie was neither Austrian nor imperial, and yet it did well enough.

"Into thy hands," and so on -- one of the things about language is it builds up and starts echoing.

After a while it means more than it says.

Politicians are alway saying they are taken out of context (when they have said something monumentally stupid) but when Language is strong it is never out of context. Majesty is its own context. So I just sat there and let the grandeur roll over me, like Yseult's voice, so to speak, on the bleak coast of Brittany.

There cannot be too much munction, as Tristan well knew, when his time came, and I always thought what a shame his friends were not there to be gladdend when the girl sang for him those endless garlands in the cold air of France.

Well.Where I was, the church, the wheel rolled by, the solemn purple and the gold and the choir going on with rising alleluias.


But I have pointed out we are born to a most strange language, full of pitfalls and confusions, full of seeming difficulty.

It may mean, at the last, what we as auditors can make of it. The Red Queen in Alice was not all wrong, when she said words meant what she took them to mean, no more and no less.

Tristan, as far as words can inform you, lived only a little while. He got a bath once in Ireland (as we know from the legends that come down to us, and as Wagner repeats in his opera) but if you want to be picky, he was probably a fairly shaggy fellow by and large.

And yet in our theater there is no glory and greater than his, and as I have said more than once to Nietzche, put that in you pipe and smoke it.

"And it is certain we can carry nothing out. . . ."

In the English language the familiar words never leave us but come unasked. You light the candles and the old words come, with hilarity or grief as you require them, and full (as always) of many meanings.

Is it true you carry nothing out?

Well, the choir as I say was going on with its alleluias, and it struck me:

The dark unfathom'd cave has more wonderful things than ocean bears inside it. Tristan was scared of it, but Yseult calmed him.

"Yet with my flesh," as they say, "shall I see. . . ."

And I say what, exactly, shall we see? And no man knows, And you really can't count on entering with Yseult singing.

It is the power of our language, as unfathomed as any cave, and the power of any lass, for that matter, to snare the shaggiest beast with her bright defiant net of alleluias.