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In the fourth stanza of Book I of an English translation of Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads), the narrator speaks to the "fair nymphs of Tagus"

And you, fair nymphs of Tagus, parent stream,
If e’er your meadows were my pastoral theme,
While you have listen’d, and by moonshine seen
My footsteps wander o’er your banks of green,
...

The short summary at the top of the page appears to refer to this bit (and some the following parts) as the "Invocation to the muses of the Tagus". Why is an invocation needed, and what does it add to the poem/signify? I'm pretty ignorant about the myths/culture that is probably needed to understand this.

I found that the invocation is considered important enough to merit its own section as part of the internal structure of the poem:

The poem is made up of four sections:

  • An introduction (proposition – presentation of the theme and heroes of the poem)
  • Invocation – a prayer to the Tágides, the nymphs of the Tagus;
  • A dedication – (to Sebastian of Portugal)
  • Narration (the epic itself) – starting in stanza 19 of canto I, in medias res, opening in the midst of the action, with the background story being told later in the epic.

According to a voice tour of Lisbon, the nymphs inspired Camões to write the epic in the first place.

According to mythology the nymphs are beings who live in the rivers and seas. The Tágides are to blame for inspiring Camões into writing his masterpiece “The Lusiads” because the poet asked them for inspiration back in the 1500s.

So this is clearly important, even if I can't understand why. The sources I find on the poem simply note that there's an invocation, but don't explain why it is there or what its purpose is.

What's the significance of the "Invocation to the muses of the Tagus"? Why is it there?

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Camões invokes the nymphs of the Tagus to be his muse. An invocation where the poet asks the muse to inspire his song is a standard component of epic poetry. Here are examples from the classics:

Homer, Odyssey:

ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν:     (I.1–2)

Translation by Emily Wilson:

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy     (I.1–3, p. 105)

Virgil, Aeneid:

Musa, mihi causas memora, quo numine laeso,
quidve dolens, regina deum tot volvere casus
insignem pietate virum, tot adire labores
impulerit. Tantaene animis caelestibus irae?     (I.8–11)

Translation by L. R. Lind:

            Muse, tell me the reasons why
A wounded power divine, a queen of the gods
In anger compelled him to go through so many dangers,
A man outstanding for loyalty, and to struggle
So long? Can celestial spirits harbor such wrath?     (I.8–12, p. 3)

As these examples show, inviting the Muse to sing through the poet is a common trope in epic poetry. Also common, since the time of Virgil, was the idea that epic was the crowning achievement of a poet's career. The Virgilian progression or cursus was the idea that Virgil's trajectory from pastoral lyrics through didactic georgics to the epic provided a model for all poets who aspired to write an epic, allowing them to hone their craft by working on increasingly complex material. Hence Camões alludes to his earlier pastorals ("verso humilde") in his own invocation to the muses:

E vós, Tágides minhas, pois criado
Tendes em mim um novo engenho ardente,
Se sempre em verso humilde celebrado
Foi de mim vosso rio alegremente,
Dai-me agora um som alto e sublimado,
Um estilo grandíloquo e corrente,
Porque de vossas águas, Febo ordene
Que não tenham inveja às de Hipoerene.

Dai-me uma fúria grande e sonorosa,
E não de agreste avena ou frauta ruda,
Mas de tuba canora e belicosa,
Que o peito acende e a cor ao gesto muda;
Dai-me igual canto aos feitos da famosa
Gente vossa, que a Marte tanto ajuda;
Que se espalhe e se cante no universo,
Se tão sublime preço cabe em verso.     (I.4–5)

In Landeg White's translation:

And you, nymphs of the Tagus, who
First suckled my infant genius,
If ever in my rustic verses
I celebrated your companionable river,
Return me now a loftier tone,
A style both grand and contemporary;
Be to me Helicon. Let Apollo choose
Your waters as the fountain of my muse.

Fire me now with mighty cadences,
Not a goatherd's querulous piping
But the shouts of a battle trumpet,
Stirring the heart, steeling the countenance;
Give me a poem worthy of the exploits
Of those heroes so inspired by Mars,
To propagate their deeds through space and time
If poetry can rise to the sublime.     (pp. 3–4)

Mount Helicon was the home of the Muses; the Hippocrene, a spring that mountain, was associated with poetic inspiration. As with all post-Virgilian poets, Camões's epic ambitions are also nationalistic ones. Just as the Aeneid simultaneously told the story of the founding of Rome and celebrated the achievements of its current ruler, Augustus, Camões tells the story of Vasco da Gama to valorize contemporary Portugal. His identification of the nymphs of the Tagus with the muses of the Hippocrene patriotically elevates Lisbon's river and announces the specifically Portuguese nature of his epic.

References (except Wikipedia)

  • Camões, Luis Vaz de. The Lusiad. Trans. William Julius Mickle, 1776, edition of 1877. sacred-texts.com. Accessed March 21, 2021.
  • Camões, Luis Vaz de. The Lusíads. Trans. Landeg White. Oxford: Oxford UP. 1997.
  • Homer. The Odyssey. Ed. and trans. A.T. Murray. Harvard: Harvard UP; London: Heinemann, 1919. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed March 20, 2021.
  • ———. The Odyssey. Trans. Emily Wilson. New York: Norton, 2018.
  • Vergil [Publius Vergilius Maro]. The Aeneid: An Epic Poem of Rome. Trans. L. R. Lind. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1963.
  • ———. Bucolics, Aeneid, and Georgics Of Vergil. Ed. J. B. Greenough. Boston: Ginn & Co, 1900. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed March 20, 2021.

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