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The original text:

[...] For them the working hours are never long enough. Each day is a holiday, and ordinary holidays, when they come, are grudged as enforced interruptions in an absorbing vocation. Yet to both classes, the need of an alternative outlook, of a change of atmosphere, of a diversion of effort, is essential. Indeed, it may well be that those whose work is their pleasure are those who most need the means of banishing it at intervals from their minds.

What does the first "it" refer to here? I think the second "it" refer to "work."

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You are correct - the second it refers to "work". The first it is a dummy pronoun - this it does not refer to an agent. The its in the following phrases are dummy pronouns:

It may well be that ...

It is possible that ...

It is probable that ...

It is the case that ...

It is true that ...

It is obvious that ...

It is clear that ...

In each of these examples, it does not refer to anything. This type of construction - "It may well be that [statement]" - is equivalent to "[statement] may well be". But it* is sometimes more natural to use a dummy pronoun.

*see what I did there? You could also say: "Using a dummy pronoun is sometimes more natural."

  • Is "[statement] may well be" a complete sentence? It seems to me it's missing a predicative after the linking verb. I have no diffcult to undertand "it" as a dummy pronoun in your other sentence examples as they are all in the form of "It be predicative + [statement]." – Charlie May 21 at 23:57
  • I think I got it now. It seems it needs a little bit tweak in meaning, "It may well be" is equivalent to "It may be highly possible." Here is an example using the same pattern: It may well be that the information is not available. at macmillandictionary.com/us/dictionary/american/… – Charlie May 22 at 0:20
  • @Charlie yes, I think it is a complete sentence - if you say (to use a simple example) "That may well be" it's understood to mean "That may well be so" or "That may well be true" or "That may well be the case" (etc). A common use case is contrasting two potential opposite situations, e.g. "John doesn't think this is a natural phrase, but it very well may be." And I agree - "may well be" is like "may be highly possible"! – Mixolydian May 22 at 0:24

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