John the Damascene is the first English translation of Alexei K. Tolstoy’s 1859 epic poem on the life of Saint John of Damascus (c. 675–749). Saint John is widely recognized as a eminent theologian and hymnographer of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Tolstoy’s narrative begins with Saint John at the height of his fame and influence. Nevertheless, the saint desires a life of stillness and prayer and he therefore leaves Damascus for a monastery in the Judean wilderness. Here, the renowned poet and singer is given an obedience of silence. Tolstoy’s narrative reaches its climax when Saint John breaks his silence to offer hymns of mourning for the funeral of a fellow monk. The tale concludes with a vindication of the poet’s creative freedom, reflecting Tolstoy’s own desire for creative liberty under the crushing regime of Russian censorship during the reign of Tsar Alexander ii. This English translation of John the Damascene is augmented by rich illustrations, a brief overview of the life of Alexei K. Tolstoy, and an afterword on the cultural context of Tolstoy’s work and the influence that his work had on others, in particular the composers Tchaikovsky and Taneyev. The drama of Tolstoy’s narrative joined to vivid illustrations makes this book an engaging read for all ages. Its universal message can be appreciated by all.
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