Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

"God Grant That I Not Go Insane"

“God Grant that I Not Go Insane”
Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin
St. Petersburg

PLOT SUMMARY: The poem “God Grant that I Not Go Insane” by Alexander Pushkin explores the theme of madness in five distinct stanzas. Each stanza of the poem is composed of six lines and follows the AABCCB rhyme scheme. In the first stanza, the lyrical persona, or poet, prays to God that he does not go insane although he states that it is not because he values his mind or intellect. Instead, the poet seems to be afraid of the fear and dread one experiences when institutionalized or incarcerated, as described in the last two stanzas of the poem.

     The second and third stanzas describe the poet’s hypothetical freedom and sense of agency within the natural world. In the two stanzas, he takes on an active voice and assumes a powerful, even destructive, role in nature. The fourth and fifth stanzas, on the other hand, are void of natural imagery and instead emphasizes the consequences of the poet’s madness. In the fourth stanza, the poet describes what happens to someone when they go mad: an unknown force referred to as “they” will chain and imprison the madman. In the last stanza, the poet describes that he can no longer hear the sounds of nature, like songbirds and oak. The cacophony of cries within the prison space is all that remains.

ANALYSIS: The differences in style and tone between the second and third stanzas of this poem and the remaining stanzas are stark. The active voice and the sense of agency present in the second and third stanzas through repetitive and active diction such as “I’d flee,” “I’d harken,” “I’d gaze,” and “I’d stand” illustrate the poet’s powerful and dominant force over nature. Such a role is symbolic of the poet’s potentially positive view of insanity because it provides freedom and growth in one’s poetic ability.

     However, the first and last two stanzas disrupt the poet’s natural imagery and instead transfers power and agency from “I” to an unknown “they”: “They’ll pen you up”, “They’ll chain you”, “They’ll taunt you.” The transition from a subject to a passive object elicits dread from the poet because he is aware of the consequences of incarceration. Thus, contrary to what the title of the poem might suggest, the poet is not afraid of going insane; instead, he is fearful of the reality of imprisonment within an institution.

     Like other Russian prison texts, this poem explicitly explores the themes of power, madness, incarceration, and the loss of identity. Specifically, this poem illustrates the unbalanced power dynamic within the carceral institution and the destruction of the self, “I,” that occurs. This poem contributes to the genre of the Russian prison text by including a mental dimension to the overall conceptualization of imprisonment. This both expands and complicates the notion of a “prison” in our reading.


“A free and mighty force I’d stand / And, like a whirlwind, rout the land / And ravage all the forest wide.”

“They’ll pen you up with no release, / They’ll chain you to a madman’s fate; / And men will come and through the grate / They’ll taunt you like a wretched beast.” 

“And in the darkness I shall hear / No songbird’s voice serene and clear, / No rustling murmur of the oak— / But my companions’ cries of fright”

BIOGRAPHY: Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin was born into Russian nobility on June 6, 1799. His father was Sergey Lvovich Pushkin, and his mother, Nadezhda Ossipovna Gannibal, was the granddaughter of the Central-African-born general Ibrahim Petrovich Gannibal. Pushkin attempted to imagine his maternal great-grandfather’s life in an historical novel he began in 1827 titled The Moor of Peter the Great. Although incomplete, this piece illustrates the central role Pushkin’s African ancestry played in his conception of the world. Like many aristocratic families during that era, Pushkin’s parents adopted French culture and Pushkin grew up speaking French. He became acquainted with the Russian language through Russian folktale and stories of his ancestors from his nurse and maternal grandmother, respectively.

Pushkin began writing at a young age and attended the Imperial Lyceum at Tsarskoye Selo, an educational institution founded in 1811 to educate children of nobles who would later occupy important roles in the imperial service. After graduating, Pushkin moved to Saint Petersburg and gradually emerged as a spokesman for social reform and sympathized with the Decembrist revolt of 1825, the unsuccessful military faction that rose up to challenge Nicholas I. As a result of his political poems, Pushkin was sent to exile by Alexander I and traveled widely from Yekaterinoslav to Caucasus to Crimea. The impressions he gained during his travels provided the backdrop to his romantic narrative poems. Pushkin’s work increased his popularity with the public, and as a result, Nicholas I allowed Pushkin to return to Moscow after the suppression of the Decembrist uprising. Despite being allowed to return to Moscow, Pushkin’s time in Moscow was met with intense censorship and spiritual isolation. In 1831, Pushkin married Natalya Nikolayevna Goncharova, returned to Saint Petersburg, and continued to write. Pushkin died on February 10, 1837 from an injury obtained in a dual to protect his wife’s honor.


Alexander Pushkin. Poetry Foundation.

Blagoy, Fimitry Dimitriyevich. Aleksandr Pushkin: Russian Author. Britannica. 2021.

The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families: Pushkin Genealogy. PBS Frontline.   

Pushkin, Aleksandr Sergeevich. “God Grant That I Not Go Insane.” Selected Lyric Poetry. Falen, James E., translator. Northwestern University Press, 2009.

McAloon, Jonathan. Pushkin's Pride: How the Russian Literary Giant Paid Tribute to His African Ancestry. The Guardian. 2017.


Brintlinger, Angela, and Ilya Vinitsky, editors. Madness and the Mad in Russian Culture. University of Toronto Press, 2007. JSTOR,
Editors Brintlinger and Vinitsky brought together essays by American, British, and Russian scholars in various fields to address the role of madness and the mad in Russian culture. This collection covers over 250 years and addresses a variety of ideas from the involvement of the state to the attitudes of major Russian authors (including Pushkin) in an attempt to understand how our understanding of madness has shaped and is shaped by the history, culture, and politics of Russia.

Rosenshield, Gary. “The Poetics of Madness: Puškin's ‘God Grant That I Not Lose My Mind.’” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 38, no. 1, 1994, pp. 120–147. JSTOR,
Rosenshield explores the theme of madness in this article and examines the implied relationship between madness and poetry in “God Grant That I Not Lose My Mind.”

Rosenshield, Gary. Pushkin and the Genres of Madness: the Masterpieces of 1833. University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.
In this book, Rosenshield presents an interpretation of Pushkin’s various representations of madness in “The Queen of Spades,” “God Grant That I Not Lose My Mind,” and The Bronze Horseman. Rosenshield comments on Pushkin’s understanding of both the destructive and creative sides of madness and how they are manifested in the three texts.

This page has tags: