The Life and Times of the Star-Spangled Banner

To Anacreon in Heaven

The tune for The Star-Spangled Banner comes from a song called To Anacreon in Heaven. It was written for use by a men's club, called The Anacreontic Society. They met once a month at a place called the Crown and Anchor Tavern. The Crown and Anchor was not just a tavern in the sense we think of today, but had a dining hall suitable for performance by a small orchestra. Some of the best known entertainers of the day performed there.

The Anacreontic Society was named after the classical Greek poet Anacreon. Although many Roman poets wrote about themes of "wine, women, and song," few Greek poets did. Anacreon was an exception, so his name came to be associated with rather rowdy parties. In the song, the members of the Anacreontic Society "pray" to Anacreon, petitioning him to be their inspiration. Anacreon agrees and offers to teach them to "intwine the myrtle of Venus with Bacchus' vine." In Greek mythology, Venus is the goddess of love and Bacchus is the god of wine. Jove, the God of thunder and king of the gods, objects that this is too fine a gift for mere mortals. He threatens to hang the members of the Anacreontic Society. This parallels the myth of Prometheus, who was punished by Zeus for giving mankind the gift of fire. In the Anacreontic song, however, the other gods rally around the members of the Anacreontic Society and protect them. In the end, Jove (Zeus to the Greeks) is convinced that the Anacreontic Society deserves the approval of the gods and lends his support.

The Anacreontic Society was dissolved in the 1790s, but not before it spawned a host of imitators. In the new United States, cultural ties with Britain continued after independence. Anacreontic Societies were formed in the U.S., which helped to spread the tune. It makes a good tune for patriotic songs, and many such songs were written in the US. Several are printed in this site.

The words and music were written by two different members of the original Anacreontic Society. The words were written by a man named Ralph Tomlinson. The music was probably written by John Stafford Smith, but this is not completely certain. We also do not know exactly when the music was written or whether the words and music were written at the same time. It is interesting that the tune that was to become the national anthem of the United States was probably written by an Englishman not long after the time of the American Revolution. It is also ironic that our very solemn national anthem was written to a tune that was essentially an invitation to party hearty.

The song contains a number of references to Greek mythology. In case you aren't as fluent in Greek mythology as educated people were in the 18th century, I've added some notes in [green]

An Anacreontic scene

To Anacreon in Heaven

Packington's Pound tune

Anacreon tune

To Anacreon, in Heav'n, where he sat in full glee,

A few sons of harmony sent a petition,

That he their inspirer and patron would be;

When this answer arriv'd from the jolly old Grecian —

Voice, fiddle and flute,

No longer be mute;

I'll lend ye my name, and inspire ye to boot:

And besides, I'll instruct ye, like me, to intwine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's vine. [Venus: goddess of love; Bacchus: god of wine]

The news through Olympus immediately flew;

When old Thunder pretended to give himself airs — [Old thunder: Jove, king of the gods]

If these mortals are suffer'd their scheme to pursue,

The devil's a goddess will stay above stairs.

Hark, already they cry,

In transports of joy,

A fig for Parnassus, to Rowley's we'll fly; [Parnassus: mountain associated with Apollo]

And there, my good fellows, we'll learn to intwine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's vine.

The yellow-haired god, and his nine fusty maids, [Apollo, nine muses of poetry]

To the hill of old Lud will incontinent flee, [Lud: London]

Idalia will boast of but tenantless shades

And the biforked hill a mere desert will be. [Parnassus, again]

My thunder, no fear on't,

Will soon do its errand,

And, dam'me I'll swinge the ringleaders I warrant.

I'll trim the young dogs, for thus daring to intwine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's vine.

Apollo rose up; and said, Pr'ythee ne'er quarrel,

Good king of the gods, with my vot'ries below!

Your thunder is useless—then shewing his laurel,

Cry'd sic evitabile fulmen, you know! [Such lightning is avoidable]

Then over each head

My laurels I'll spread;

So my sons from your crackers no mischief shall dread,

Whilst snug in their club-room, they'll jovially twine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's vine.

Next Momus got up, with his risible phiz, [Momus: god of mockery, risible phiz: ugly face]

And swore with Apollo he'd chearfully join —

The full tide of harmony still shall be his,

But the song, and the catch, and the laugh shall be mine:

Then Jove, be not jealous

Of these honest fellows.

Cry'd Jove, We relent, since the truth you now tell us;

And swear by old Styx, that they long shall intwine [Styx: river, boundary between the earth and the underworld]

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's vine.

Ye sons of Anacreon, then, join hand in hand;

Preserve unanimity, friendship, and love.

'Tis your's to support what's so happily plan'd;

You've the sanction of gods and the fiat of Jove.

While thus we agree,

Our toast let it be.

May our club flourish happy, united, and free!

And long may the sons of Anacreon intwine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's vine.